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The Serious Playfulness of Hilary Harkness

“When details of my private life are splashed in the press, I throw a shit fit, then happily cook dinner for my wife,” says Brooklyn-based artist Hilary Harkness.

Her professional life, however, is happily on full display: Harkness’ two-part show, “Prisoners from the Front,” and “At Home, At War: Life with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas,” opened October 13 at the P·P·O·W Gallery in Manhattan, where it will be on display through November 11.

The show marks Harkness’ first solo exhibition in over a decade, and it is the largest showcase of her work to date. With it she unleashes her vivid imagination and sharp observations like never before.

In the first part of the exhibition, Harkness has drawn inspiration — and its name — from Winslow Homer’s 1866 Civil War masterpiece, “Prisoners from the Front.” But Harkness takes a sharp turn away from the original.

Unlike Homer’s iconic painting, in which a real Union officer captures several Confederate soldiers, Harkness’ “Prisoners from the Front” is a fictional narrative made up of 18 small-scale (21”x16”) works on canvas, each mixing fantasy with reality to explore power struggles inherent in sex, race and class.’

By harnessing her own queer identity, Harkness subverts Homer’s painting with a homoerotic, anti-racist twist. “Winslow Homer’s ‘Prisoners’ called to me because of that orange-haired Confederate soldier in the center, looking so much like someone from the ‘70s,” she explains. “He had all the charisma. He looked like he was a closeted lesbian, and so I just started speculating. And I kind of took it from there.”

Using her realistic style to create miniature worlds that defy convention, Harkness turned Homer’s white soldiers into Black ones and peopled her canvases with women, imbuing both groups with a rebellious spirit and a penchant for acting up, acting out and indulging in outrageous sexual behavior. With finely detailed brush strokes, each canvas paints a sylvan landscape that calls to mind old Flemish masters. Within these landscapes, fantasies abound — a baby is born, gay men have sex, a soldier with a rifle sits in a tree, two women make love.

In spite of the outrageousness, Harkness’ “Prisoners” emerges as a powerful and analytical commentary on contemporary mores. Using history to challenge our 21st century prejudices. “While my story focuses on the American Civil War,” she says, “I was painting between 2018 and 2023, with racism and homophobia persisting.”

Harkness’ message is topical, and her head-on confrontation with racism is highly personal: She is white and her wife is Black.

Her exhibit then takes the viewer into a second gallery room where a totally different world unfolds: “At Home, at War: Life with Alice and Gertrude,” a series dating back from 2007 to 2016, again highlighting the artist’s skill and range yet with a playful streak. This series, says the artist, “circles the life of the iconic lesbian couple, chronicling their transgressive and tumultuous relationship and posh lifestyle.”

These works are painted on copper, and the scale of individual figures is significantly increased.

There is some connective tissue between “Alice and Gertrude” and the Prisoner series. From her early years, Harkness’ work has been concerned with history and war, and the “At Home, At War” collection is yet another reinterpretation of history: Stein and Toklas were living in the midst of the Second World War. But with her characteristic humor, Harkness pokes fun at the life and times of the famous couple with images of carnal lesbian utopias. As art critic Jerry Saltz puts it: “Her figures, whatever they’re involved in, ooze a bitchy demonic kinkiness, which makes looking at these paintings slippery fun.”

“It’s a serious playful,” says Eden Deering, director of the P·P·O·W Gallery. “One example is where Gertrude is serving Alice, her lover, breakfast. If you know the biography of Gertrude and Alice, you know how unbelievable it would be. Certainly Gertrude would have never served Alice anything, and certainly not in bed with another lover. It’s farcical in a way, but it’s this way of giving Alice power and control over a very unbalanced relationship.”

In a similar spirit of farce, in another painting Toklas is holding a disembodied head of Ernest Hemingway, “as though she had decapitated him,” says Deering. “Almost like a David and Goliath photo.”

Harkness adds that in her imagination Hemingway was “aroused by Stein’s manliness and her rejection of his sexual advances. Alice decapitates him, but her vengeance becomes hollow in the face of Gertrude’s dalliances with other women.”

‘Frida Kahlo came to me in a dream’

Harkness’ artistic path seems almost predestined. Born in Detroit in 1971, she was nurtured into artistry by her father, who worked in a paper mill. Encouraging her creative spirit, he would bring home reams of paper, fostering her early love for drawing. “The most important thing that influenced my love of both science and art was a childhood where thinking and making were confluent,” she says.

Her studies at Berkeley further shaped her passion for creativity. “I was taking a painting class but had yet to declare a major. Then one day Frida Kahlo came to me in a dream and told me what to paint,” she says. Dream Kahlo encouraged Harkness to go in a more surrealist and figurative direction. “Her ideas weren’t so bad! I had to scramble to complete a major in art in time to graduate.” She graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

After graduation, unsure there was room for her in the art world, she took herself to the Pompidou Center Library in Paris to look through every single artist’s monograph to see where she could insert herself into art.

“I came across Judy Chicago’s ‘Through the Flower,’ her autobiography chronicling her experiences of how misogyny, racism and other prejudices intersect to erase the legacies of artists who are not white and male,” she says. “That’s when I realized the answers are inside myself, not out in the art world — that whatever I was working with, you know, in my case, lesbian desire — it’d be OK to make art about it.”

She has been exhibiting her work since 1998 and has gained global recognition with exhibitions in such prestigious venues as the Museo Thyssen-bornemisza in Madrid and the Deste Foundation in Athens. She is also in the permanent collection of New York’s Whitney Museum. In 2018, she was accepted into the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Copyist Program, where she first conceived the series that would become “Prisoners from the Front.”

The P·P·O·W’s show, exhibiting two sides of Harkness’ creativity, offers a perfect entrée into her wildly imaginative, politically trenchant world. Here, Harkness challenges a dominant historical narrative by skillfully placing the stories and conflicts of women, people of color and LGBTQIA+ individuals at the forefront. Just leave her private life out of it.

“Prisoners from the Front,” and “At Home, At War: Life with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas” will be on display until November 11, 2023. P·P·O·W Gallery, 392 Broadway.