On ViewOff Paradise
Robert Hawkins: Dream Mine
June 7–August 7, 2023
New York City
In 1894, John Hyrum Koyle, a Utah Mormon, received a message from the Angel Moroni in his dreams. Moroni, a major prophet of the Mormons and the Latter Day Saint theological movement, instructed Koyle to tunnel a mine through a mountainside located in Salem, Utah, where he would uncover gold and riches that would provide untold financial wealth and security to the church and all its believers, especially through the end times. Koyle obeyed Moroni’s command and the “Dream Mine” (sometimes called the “Relief Mine”) was dug and labored over intermittently over the ensuing decades. Though Koyle’s vision and undertaking were controversial in his lifetime (he was eventually excommunicated from the LDS church for his beliefs) and the mine has long remained dormant, many Mormon believers continue to have faith in his prophecy, and still hold shares in the physical excavation site. This uniquely American story, borne of a uniquely American religion, forms a thematic basis for Robert Hawkins’s current solo show, Dream Mine, on view at Off Paradise.
The exhibition, made up of seventeen paintings and works on paper, also includes a framed certificate of Hawkins’s ownership in the Dream Mine—fifty shares of stock, inherited from his mother, who was a descendant of an esteemed lineage of prominent Mormons, and a true believer. Though Hawkins himself is a nonbeliever, the works on view nonetheless have an inherently personal quality. Upon entry to the gallery, the viewer confronts Endless Wealth (Relief Mine) (2017–23), a large oil painting, and Keep Out (2019) a watercolor painted on a soil bag (a paper bag used to collect samples within a mine) that depicts the entry to the Dream Mine. The watercolor is stark, conveying the mine’s foreboding mouth. In contrast, the oil painting dazzles, a resplendent cavern filled with gold and speckled with gleaming jewels stretching backwards into a dark surround and seemingly into infinity. Hawkins’s laborious, five-year effort on the work is evident in the detailing of the hundreds of coins and gemstones that make up the hills of luster that fill the cavern. The work hangs in conversation with one positioned across from it, Crown in Water (Philosophy) (1985). This nearly 40-year old painting, made when Hawkins was entrenched in the gritty early-1980s art scene of lower Manhattan, is a hint that the dubious seduction of fantastical riches is not a new notion for the artist. A river of water snakes across the canvas in a similar one-point perspective as in Endless Wealth, receding into a vanishing point in the distant horizon, much like the riverscapes of Thomas Cole and Frederic Church while a sumptuous bejeweled crown lies, depreciated, in a pool of water in the foreground.
Gold pervades the exhibition; even the edges of the canvases are lined with satin, gold-colored ribbon. A number of paintings are dominated by the gold paint, which does not shimmer or glint but is instead the bright, yellowish color that often indicates riches in comics and cartoons. Studying works like Millions of Stacks of Gold Coins (Room Six) or Millions of Gold Crowns (both 2023), I kept recollecting the Disney cartoon of Uncle Scrooge, where the miserly duck goes “swimming” for fun in his roomful of riches. An especially effective painting, Bejeweled Snake (2009-23), recalls another Disney cartoon character, Sir Hiss, the sycophantic snake who is sidekick to the evil Prince John in the animated film, Robin Hood (1973). Like that snake, who used his hypnotic eyes for persuasion, the serpent in Hawkins’s painting has a similarly alluring eye and a fat jeweled ring encircling its neck, simultaneously drawing in the viewer with the promise of treasure while also warning of the dangers of temptation.
That this line can be drawn between Disney cartoons and the Mormon legend—both distinctly American innovations—suggests the depths of the American belief in conquest and entitlement. In a short text written for the exhibition, Randy Kennedy quotes Hawkins reaching to an even earlier American reference, saying that the Dream Mine “got me thinking about the Hudson River School, about how all those fantastical, over-the-top, dreamy paintings of the West had enticed people to get in their wagons to follow an image, a vision.” If those nineteenth-century painters romanticized the American landscape, and valorized the idea of Manifest Destiny, Hawkins’s paintings represent the culmination of those ideals, suggested in Crown in Water (Philosophy) but also evident in the recent work. Mine in the Morning (2023), for instance, depicts the Dream Mine as it stands today, a blocky, white fortress blemishing the hillside, protecting nothing. In Koyle’s Grave in Gold (2023) the Mormon visionary’s glitzy headstone overshadows the verdant green plain and crystalline skies that provide its backdrop. Self-minted Americans did come, they saw, they conquered, Hawkins seems to suggest. But to what ends?