E.K. Huckaby’s Excursus: An uninvited guest critique

E.K. Huckaby, Stars of the Western Hemisphere, 2010, oil on panel, 39.25 x 50.75 inches. Photo courtesy Poem 88.

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.

E.K. Huckaby, Fleeing in Pursuit of the Given Moment, 2010, oil on panel, encaustic, 30 x 45 inches. Photo courtesy Poem 88.

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, Lessons, 2010, mixed media, 14.75 x 14.75 inches. Photo courtesy Poem 88.

E.K. Huckaby’s Excursus, presented by Poem 88, continues at the Tanner-Hill Gallery Project Space through November 28.


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Comment(8)

  • John Macris
    December 26, 2010 at

    I meant film critic, sorry – this article really made me angry.

  • John Macris
    December 26, 2010 at

    How did this even make it online? Charles, you should be a feel critic. This is total rubbish.

  • Jerry Cullum
    Jerry Cullum
    November 22, 2010 at

    Now that Creative Loafing has provided some of the lost Huckaby context (though Wyatt Williams knew nothing of Huckaby’s early embrace of Bataille’s theory or his correspondence with British artists using taxidermy or his systematic experiments with industrial materials-failure manuals and Huckaby didn’t provide the information), isn’t it time for an E. K. Huckaby retrospective? The present show gives little context within which to understand his work, though I think Westfall’s critique is so wrong as to undermine my trust in his ability to see paintings. Boring these works might be, but they are so resolutely uncommercial that I can’t imagine a single store that would carry them. Doesn’t Westfall understand the nature of guilty-pleasure art, of the particularity of sentiment that such work needs to elicit? Guest towels portrayed as botanical specimens and masses of fleeing or swarming bunny rabbits ain’t it. I might accept this, were I ignorant of the systematically perverse context, as a failed attempt to parody the ongoing cult of history that gave us all those dead-roses paintings a quarter century ago. But those were a fine-art nod to nostalgia. Huckaby’s work is so un-nostalgic that nobody with any visual sensibilities ought to make that association, although as Westfall says, he is a sensitive observer of contemporary art, not of contemporary culture, so he reads this stuff through the filter of contemporary high-art trends. When it comes to cultural studies and reading the culture observantly, he gets an F, hands down. But that happens, I’ve done it myself often enough and still blush at the recollection.

    And nobody could possibly divine E. K.’s intent from these paintings: I personally felt a sense of letdown even though I could detect the brilliant diversity of strategy that is always at work in E. K.’s oeuvre, which he puts out there with no concern with whether anybody else will find the slightest pleasure in it. The idea comes first, inevitably, and the viewer’s ability to comprehend or enjoy it…well, that is up to the viewer, now isn’t it?

    So I suppose that although this seems like a bizarre subjective reaction or creative misreading, aversion is what E. K. was looking for, or often is looking for, and he got it. Bingo.

  • john otte
    November 13, 2010 at

    whatever the outcome, i like this intelligent thread. question: what might be done to bring out some of the more bizarre aspects of e.k.s work which otherwise seem so dormant in this show? for a start, different installation techniques. but, more importantly, a dialogue with other artists and their works might serve to wake them up. mix it up. this is one of my biggest problems with the atl art world – not enough playful dialogue and relationships among artworks, objects, and artists. just look at the high museum. it needs to be much more “high” for my taste.

  • eggtooth
    November 5, 2010 at

    Howdy Jeremy and Charles. (and Louis while we’re at it)

    Reviews like this make me wonder about investments. In terms of time and thought. How did this make it through editing? It is embarrassing.
    This particular review exemplifies something and I’m happy for what it points to: Wise investments in important elements of the Atlanta art community are not happening.
    Knowing when to critique what is a fundamental.
    Charles, Atlanta is in serious need of engaging criticism and you are working hard to belabor any potential growth this community might feel in that department. Your writing is trying too hard. The very 1st sentence was cumbersome and stuffily stumbled us into the writing. Pieces like this establish only a classroom assignment context for taste or credibility.

    It is very easy to find work that evokes the reaction bluntly expressed in Charles’ writing. It is everywhere in Atlanta. Please realize that often this kind of art does not lie about what it claims to say or be. This is because it is irrelevant and not worth even mentioning- def. not worth applying what one wants to call criticism to. While this kind of art exists everywhere, it’s easy to see why an Atl arts writer could cajole themselves into knee-jerking this reaction to the wrong situ. It becomes frustrating how common it is in Atlanta. We are eager to create positioning for more by establishing expectations.
    Were Charles’ writing to wear hipster juvie irreverence or something rough and naively individuated as an attribute on its sleeve, it’d wld be one thing, but it obviously felt the opp for a sophisticated/erudite slap at a “fish in a barrel” situation and smirked as it went for tired cliche’ anti-commodity quip after quip.
    Charles, rather than coming across as cultured and/or made intellectually impatient, you effectively made a fool of yourself and perpetuated the silly art crushy stigma this entire blog has. Congrats. It’s almost as if yr learning what you know about human condition/culture from 60’s pop music.

    With all of that said, Excursus was a loose show in Huckaby terms. The pieces, as strong as the majority were, seemed at a distance from each other. This drew a contrast to the entire mood and process one is capable of experiencing with his work. Critical writing discussing this contrast would be worth something to Atlanta. There’s a patina’d elegant sensation that Poem88 provides, it’s perfect for his work, bringing to mind another layer of potential discussion. This showing of Huckaby’s work felt like a solid encore or collection of lost b-sides. Living contradictions and creepy laboratory sensibilities are still there. Beautiful objects crafted very purposefully to be just that are also laced w/ suggested mythical provenance and strange southern suspicion. Misdirections saturate where he’s coming from and where he’s going with his work. I’d like to see his art stay in the space forever, molding into the walls and gathering layers for further experience.

  • Kombo
    November 5, 2010 at

    I’m not particularly moved by either the content or the execution of these pieces. I shouldn’t have to know an artist personally to appreciate the work, which should speak for itself. If knowledge about the artist’s lifestyle is a requirement to understanding the work, then the evaluation is more about the cult of personality, whether real or imagined, than the work itself. Ergo Lifestyle Marketing.

    I take all critiques with a grain of salt, especially when the source has some interest at stake. Friends, professional acquaintances, etc, they almost always tint their critiques one way or another based on self interest. We all want to be liked, to get invited to the next party, right? That’s why most ‘criticism’ is uncritical, it’s almost always in the critics best interest to play ball. Especially in a small pond like Atlanta. Thanks for another refreshingly candid critique, Charles.

    I don’t have much nostalgia for the good old days so it should come as no surprise that I don’t feel any elevated sense of wonder or mystery on seeing this work. While Tom might call that a failure on my part, I think it’s more to do with how susceptible one is to the tropes of nostalgia and sentimentality – bunny rabbits, weathered ‘old-looking’ materials, worn surfaces, etc. I’m aware of them, I’m just not titillated by them, nor do I yearn for the lifestyle that Karen describes above. My overall impression is that this work is part of the over-arching retro love meme. It’s not a stretch or a criticism to guess that lovers of this work also like vintage furniture, interior decor and the like.

  • Tom Zarrilli
    November 2, 2010 at

    The critic reveals more about himself than than the artwork under review. The references to Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware (what no Crate & Barrel?) indicates a more of a bias against commercial design than a dislike of the Huckaby’s creations. Noting “I sensed that there was little beyond a well-executed illustration of one emotion—a kind of pastiche of American thrift-store melancholy.” indicates that the writer fails to understand the function and dysfunction of abandoned objects, a major point of aesthetic exploration of so many contemporary artists. The critic also failed to experience the elevated level of mystery and wonder in nearly all of the works displayed.

  • ktauches
    November 1, 2010 at

    nato thompson from creative time gave an interesting talk last week at the contemporary. he noted that we are in the time of “corporate hipsterism”. . .”we are deeply paranoid,” he says. “no one trusts anything”. . .”a contemporary person is a contingent personality. . .always aware not to be commodified.” I agree. . .I feel that paranoia, especially when trying to enjoy art, which I deem as something much bigger than commerce. indeed, ek huckaby is a trickster in this realm.

    Westfall calls him out as an artist who synthesizes “joseph cornell and pottery barn” . . .indeed that’s a great sound byte or twitter feed. but, ultimately it’s a 2-dimensional critique (forgive the pun : ). if I were an outsider coming into a white gallery in an upscale retail district in the province of atlanta, 2010, I might make the same initial judgement about huckaby’s work at tanner-hill gallery. framed paintings line the white space in a most traditional way and the artist makes little attempt to communicate verbally outside of obtuse titles. his work is hardly conceptual in fashionable art ways. and yet, I think westfall may not realize that pottery barn and not huckaby is guilty of appropriation.

    . . .I stand by ek huckaby as a real artist. I think his sweet paintings (yes, they are sentimental at times) and magical lifestyle will stand the test of time. for the decades to come, you will find him painting in his ultimate artwork, a victorian house in brooks georgia. amidst bones, found treasures and taxidermied animals he revels in ephemerality and decay. I would call him a folk artist, but he’s hardly uneducated. he preserves and maintains a wonderland of imagination. His painting are the precious artifact. if his work is inauthentic or somehow not worthy of being high art, then I admit to loving something trivial and commercial.

    –kt

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