On for today’s agenda, "Show and Smell," Huck's title for an up close and personal view of his art. Until now, I've only seen Huck's work from Google searches on my cell phone. It's not exactly a fair way to evaluate art, especially his, as the punch of his work comes largely from its size and audacity.
Huck starts out by placing a large black folio on the table. This is Huck's first opus. Entitled “Two Weeks in August: 14 Rural Absurdities,” it contains 14 prints documenting 14 tales from his hometown, Potosi, Missouri. Right out of grad school, Huck completed the set over the course of 3 years while living in his parent's basement. During that time, he did nothing but eat and sleep his art. Once completed, he scraped together enough money to make two complete sets. If you go to Bootcamp, you will hear the amazing story of how he then sold both sets to the top two print collections in the United States, Harvard's Fogg Museum, and the New York Public Library. This was the start of his art career.
This set of 14 prints has long been sold out. Huck is able to borrow the one we are looking at from a collector who lives nearby. Please excuse my photography. I was trying to shoot quickly while he spoke. Also, a quick warning: Huck's work is for mature audiences. Some of the pictures, or my descriptions of them, may offend.
If you counted correctly, I only posted 13 prints. Yes, THE NRA SQUIRREL HUNT was missed. You can view the entire collection (beautifully photographed) at evilprints.com/two-weeks.
After examining Huck’s first major work, he took out the much newer, Electric Boloneyland. This was the first piece of Huck’s I’d ever seen. It was the one he was working on during the Youtube video that started me down this path, so I was quite excited to see it in person. Like many of his later works, Electric Boloneyland is a triptych, the entire piece being made of three separate prints put into panels (like those frequently seen in medieval religious art). Electric Boloneyland is also a chiaroscuro print, a technique using more than one block to print different colors onto the print. Electric Boloneyland is the largest chiaroscuro print in history and it took him 4 years to complete.
The piece is based on Huck’s childhood memories of county fairs combined with his commentary on the proliferation of weapons in the United States. Huck recalls a time in the early 1980’s at the county fair, as do I, when a kid could win bullwhips, machetes, and throwing stars at the gaming booths. Packs of kids left the family friendly event armed to the teeth. To him, it is not a large leap from that period in time to the state of gun violence today. Again, here is my feeble attempts to capture these great (and huge) prints as they were laid out before us (it is worth your time to go to evilprints.com/baloneyland to see it as intended):
While talking about Electric Boloneyland, Huck mentioned that fans of his work are usually attracted to the humor, the satire, and the pop culture references. But to him, something like Electric Boloneyland carries a heaviness and a sadness with it. Sadness is exactly what I picked up on when I first saw it, and it made me feel better to hear him say so. It’s the same experience I have if I watch South Park. Brilliantly funny, astute in its observations, scathing in its commentary, but I can't watch episode after episode like some of my friends can. The accumulative weight of it is just depressing. I think it's because of the social commentary, the honing in on and exaggerating of the worst in our society in order to bring attention to the subject matter at hand. To me, sometimes the exaggerations feel not so much like exaggerations, but more like a glimpse into a not too distant future. That's probably where my sense of unease comes from.
After Electric Boloneyland, Huck brought out the triptych, Tommy Peeperz. Much more on the humor side, these 3 panels are about the time, as a 9 year old boy, Huck saw his first pair of breasts at the public swimming pool. As Huck was underwater with a scuba mask, a high school girl dove into the pool, losing her top and searing everything about that day onto Huck’s brain.
I did not get a picture of the third panel which is a riff on Huck and his brother’s destruction of their sister’s barbie dolls. For a good look at all three, go to evilprints.com/tommy-peeperz
Next up, The Transformation of Brandy Baghead. This was Huck’s first triptych and was inspired by the short lived reality television program, Swan. The TV show took a group of women who were not considered beautiful, subjected them to 24 hours of cosmetic surgery, and then had them compete against one another in a beauty contest. In Huck’s version, Brandy Baghead is transformed into a chicken to compete in an ice-skating competition.
Apparently I have an issue getting pictures of the third panel. For a complete look, go to evilprints.com/the-transformation-of-brandy-baghead.
After seeing the massive triptychs, Huck brought out some of his smaller pieces:
I have no right or credentials to play art critic with Huck's work. But hey, it's my blog, and it's something I've been thinking about, so I guess I'm gonna.
Why is Huck's work important? Why is it collected in museums? For that matter, why would a museum want to display a print of a pimple-assed man fucking a woman over a shit-stained toilet in an outhouse while a dog humps his prosthetic leg? (I rewrote that sentence several times, trying to be more eloquent, but when you see the print, I think you’ll agree it’s the most accurate description. The print is entitled Anatomy of a Crack Shack and is part of the Bloody Bucket series.)
First, Huck’s work gives voice to the America where he lives, among people he affectionately describes as 'hillbillies.’ I grew up and live in that same America (about 3 hours away from Huck’s). Our hills are too small for us to consider ourselves hillbillies, so we prefer ‘rednecks.’ As such, we do not usually see our particular demographic represented in modern works of art or museums. Visually, this makes Huck unique.
Secondly, Huck is a brilliant satirist. At first glance, his art seems to exploit the preconceptions of middle America, of rural life, of bumpkinly tropes living in the sticks. If this leaves us feeling superior or sophisticated, realize that the joke is on the viewer. The larger statement is about America at large, the collective, about what we’ve become, and what we are becoming. Hillbilly imagery is merely the vehicle to drive the point. Tom Huck is Samuel Clemens with a gouge and a block of wood (and yes, that is Huck’s real name.)
But for those who might be put off by his subject matter, or his opinions, it’s Huck's mastery of the art form that leaves little doubt of his place in the history of printing. And this is really all that Huck cares about. He spoke many times as to why he creates his art. He wants to be part of the history, a through-line that he sees connecting himself directly to Durer. (Fun fact, Durer was born in 1571 and Huck was born in 1971. Huck does not think this is a coincidence, but rather his destiny, that he and Durer are cosmic brothers.) Huck is obsessed with, passionate about, and pays homage to the history of printmaking. The price of admission to this lineage, as Huck sees it, is to do things with the medium that have never been done before, to continually push the art form and his abilities, just as the masters did in their day.
It is this combination of technical machismo, the unique shock and awe of his subject matter, and the bite of his satire that makes art academia pay attention.
Naturally, after seeing so many incredible prints, we were pumped to get back to our own projects. I spent the rest of the day and into the night carving a record player.
Huck spent a very hot evening grilling us dinner out on the sidewalk.