The article below comprises two parts, a short essay on interpretation followed by a short review of E.K. Huckaby‘s exhibition, Excursus, presented by Poem 88, the new curators-in-residence at the Tanner-Hill Gallery Project Space in Atlanta.
Two types of criticism
There are two major points of reference that can be brought to the creation, observation, and consumption of artworks: the institutional (or historical) and the functional (or private). The institutional point of reference includes several considerations. How does the artist/work relate to the larger art-historical conversation? How does this work relate to the artist’s previous works? What are its political or philosophical motivations? The functional point of reference, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with the immediate function of artwork in the isolated moment of its being made, observed, or consumed. That is, what is it doing right now?
Criticism, as a specialized subset of observation, is subject to the influence of both these points of reference. That is to say, there is an institutional critique and a functional critique. Or, to put it another way, there is criticism that concerns itself primarily with what the work is, and then there is criticism that concerns itself with what the work does. In truth, you’ll never encounter a review that doesn’t have a foot in both, but the writer’s weight is often shifted significantly to the one foot or the other.
In 2008 Robert Storr came to the University of Georgia and did a walk-through critique of the MFA exhibition. The following year, Dave Hickey was the visiting critic. In trying to keep this short, I will simply say that Storr’s critique favored the institutional (what the work was), while Hickey’s favored the functional (what the work does).
In discussing what the work was, Storr had at his disposal an endless supply of art-historical tie-ins, interesting corollaries, formal descriptions, and the proverbial thousand words that each picture—good or bad—is worth. He was primarily concerned with describing, not evaluating, the works on display. A picture, his method suggested, is always at least something. This is aesthetic relativism.
Hickey, on the other hand, in trying to describe what the work did, had a great deal less available to him, primarily because the majority of the works were mediocre by those (his) standards. Despite the many things the artworks may have been, they didn’t do a great deal for an informed viewer like Hickey.
Artists often submit their work to outside evaluation by guest critics who know nothing about the specifics of their histories, practice, and intentions in hopes of getting an unbiased, “honest” take on their work. (These artists know they can’t trust their friends’ opinions in the same way.)
I don’t know very much about E.K. Huckaby or his work, his history, his politics, or his motivations. I do, however, consider myself a sensitive observer of contemporary visual art—a claim that someone will undoubtedly refute. As to the ultimate meaning and value of Huckaby’s work, I will defer to those who know him best to make those kinds of evaluations. What I offer here could most constructively be thought of as a guest critique—one, it should be noted, that the artist did not request.
A functional review
Last month, I attended the opening for E.K. Huckaby’s Excursus. I arrived at the exhibition with no previous knowledge of the artist or his work. Had I known then what I know now, I could have been tempted to give Huckaby the benefit of the doubt, or shade my impressions of the work in his favor. But in my ignorance—as to his long-standing reputation and general esteem as a fixture of Atlanta’s arts community—I felt as though I was able to see the work for what it really was: formulaic, sentimental, and, in my opinion, commercial.
The 16 or so small to moderately scaled paintings and table-top sculptures on display felt, to me, like selections from a new line of artist-inspired home décor for Restoration Hardware. They had everything one might expect from a collaboration between Joseph Cornell and Pottery Barn: faux finishes, dark waxy surfaces, oversized antiqued wooden frames, scavenged materials, and a color palette that’s funky enough to be considered sophisticated, without clashing with the couch. Huckaby also employs a kind of pop-gothic imagery which ranges from rabbits to old chandeliers, a mirror ball, a child’s toy bed, and so on. Everything about the paintings, from their physical dimensions to their appearance, was within the realm of accepted standards and tastes, giving the work a feeling of Product made in the style of Art.
It’s possible that Huckaby simply finds himself the unlucky victim of an unfavorable and unflattering coincidence. But, whether this formal resemblance is intended or not, the work steps all too perfectly in tune with an affected, shabby-chic aesthetic.
As I moved around the gallery from painting to painting, I sensed that there was little beyond a well-executed illustration of one emotion—a kind of pastiche of American thrift-store melancholy. At no point did I feel that Huckaby was trying to challenge me, as the viewer, or challenge himself, as the artist. Huckaby has developed an effective recipe for making affective work, but the convenience of that recipe has now displaced the vitality of his invention.
E.K. Huckaby’s Excursus, presented by Poem 88, continues at the Tanner-Hill Gallery Project Space through November 28.