Where Funhouse Erotics Meet Art History

Art books can be many things: a token for us mere mortals who can’t afford to buy much in the way of actual artwork, an interior design flex, a vanity project, an assertion of the importance of an underrecognized artist. But in some cases, art books also offer a space to pay a different kind of attention to work that really benefits from the printed form. And that’s very much the case with the new volume Hilary Harkness: Everything For You (2024), published by Black Dog Press and PPOW Gallery.

Harkness’s work, which comprises series of narrative paintings that blend history, humor, fantasy, and a kind of funhouse erotics and gender play with rich literary and art historical references, are very much something you want to spend time sitting with. And because Harkness doesn’t create work at a monumental scale (despite the epic nature of the worlds she renders), the book’s scale doesn’t lead to a significant loss of detail, particularly because in a book, the editors can zoom into certain scenes, getting us even closer than might feel allowable or polite in a gallery setting.

Everything For You features work from across four series of works by the artist. San Francisco Turn of the Century (1997–2009) presents a Bosch-y, Bruegel-y, surrealist, class and power-differentiated, pig carcass-saturated, apocalypse-evoking world peopled only by female figures who are often engaged in labor, sex, or violence, sometimes all three. In At Home, At War (2008–15), Harkness hones in on her “feminine-neutral” gender play, as she puts it in an interview with Ivy Haldeman. The expected butch, cis-male soldiers of more typical hypermasculine military imagery are replaced entirely by lithe underwear- and white-boot-clad bodies that are both feminine and queerly masculine in a twist that doesn’t strip the scenes of their imperial/colonial ambitions, nor their homoeroticism. 

In Life with Alice and Gertrude (2007–16), she turns her gimlet eye to the life of this famous lesbian pair, primarily centering Alice B. Toklas, who outlived Stein by 20 years and died in poverty. In “Woman with the Hat” (2011), an extraordinary scene that nods to Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (c. 1620), Toklas holds Ernest Hemingway’s severed head aloft by the esophagus, cutting off his famously homophobic voice, even in death. Lastly, in Prisoners from the Front: The Arabella Freeman Series (2018–23), Harkness reimagines Winslow Homer’s “Prisoners from the Front” (1866), a painting she was able to study in detail as part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Copyist Program. In “Prisoners from the Front (1866), Commissioned by Arabella Freeman” (2019), she replaces the male Union soldier with a female one, riffing on a lengthy history of women dressing as men in order to serve as soldiers and inventing stories of what might have happened before and after that adapted scene, focusing primarily on members of a free Black upper-middle-class family as they live through the war era.

Texts by writer and critic Lynne Tillman, as well as musician and scholar Ashley Jackson (who is also Harkness’s sister-in-law), along with the interview between Harkness and artist Ivy Haldeman, help illuminate the work and Harkness’s process. But thankfully, none of the texts grip too tightly or insist on a particular reading of the lushly layered work. Like a good bedtime story, these series spin tales that are cunning, fearful, funny, and seductive, offering us a novel and exciting way to experience Harkness’s queer fantasias.

Hilary Harkness: Everything For You (2024), with contributions by Lynne Tillman, Ashley Jackson, and Hilary Harkness, is available for purchase online and in bookstores.

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