Tom Huck Woodcut Bootcamp Day 4: Show and Smell

This is the kind of flat file print nerds dream about. It also holds much of Huck’s most famous work. Double magic!

This is the kind of flat file print nerds dream about. It also holds much of Huck’s most famous work. Double magic!

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.

BED OF BONES To this day, Huck’s most popular print; the true story of two locals who lived among the decomposing carcasses of deceased pets.

BED OF BONES To this day, Huck’s most popular print; the true story of two locals who lived among the decomposing carcasses of deceased pets.

CHILI DOGS, CHICKS, AND MONSTER TRUCKS A common occurrence in the Midwest, the monster truck rally. Huck warned us to always double check the reverse image that printing causes. In this print, he missed the fact that the steering wheel would be on the wrong side of the vehicle.

CHILI DOGS, CHICKS, AND MONSTER TRUCKS A common occurrence in the Midwest, the monster truck rally. Huck warned us to always double check the reverse image that printing causes. In this print, he missed the fact that the steering wheel would be on the wrong side of the vehicle.

THE CROSSING GUARD The story of an escaped convict, disguising himself as a crossing guard in downtown Potosi.

THE CROSSING GUARD The story of an escaped convict, disguising himself as a crossing guard in downtown Potosi.

HIGH WATER HOG BLUES Documenting the flood of 1993, where a hog farmer returned home to find several dead and bloated hogs in his living room.

HIGH WATER HOG BLUES Documenting the flood of 1993, where a hog farmer returned home to find several dead and bloated hogs in his living room.

THE MARRIAGE OF JIM AND DOLLY The marriage of an actual Potosi illegitimate brother and sister.

THE MARRIAGE OF JIM AND DOLLY The marriage of an actual Potosi illegitimate brother and sister.

FRIED EGGS AND ARSON A local chicken house burned for the insurance money. The town smelled of fried eggs for weeks.

FRIED EGGS AND ARSON A local chicken house burned for the insurance money. The town smelled of fried eggs for weeks.

CATWALK: HERE THEY COME! An annual period Gala and Fashion Show that quickly derailed into an all out striptease due to the misunderstanding of some of the local boys.

CATWALK: HERE THEY COME! An annual period Gala and Fashion Show that quickly derailed into an all out striptease due to the misunderstanding of some of the local boys.

MAD DASH FOR CASH A yearly crash up derby where the last car standing wins $1000.

MAD DASH FOR CASH A yearly crash up derby where the last car standing wins $1000.

EXHUMING MOSES Probably my favorite piece in this series. Under the cover of darkness, a group of Texans came to exhume the founding father of Potosi, Moses Austin. Austin’s son, Stephen, founded the state of Texas and some Texans believe the remains of the two should be together. Half way through the illegal unearthing, the men were caught.

EXHUMING MOSES Probably my favorite piece in this series. Under the cover of darkness, a group of Texans came to exhume the founding father of Potosi, Moses Austin. Austin’s son, Stephen, founded the state of Texas and some Texans believe the remains of the two should be together. Half way through the illegal unearthing, the men were caught.

PARTY TIL SHES CUTE Line dancing at the local Polosi drinking establishment.

PARTY TIL SHES CUTE Line dancing at the local Polosi drinking establishment.

KOHLER CITY REVISITED A local store that sold used dentures in a large barrel.

KOHLER CITY REVISITED A local store that sold used dentures in a large barrel.

MARTHA AND THE GREASED PIG My other favorite, two sisters who enter the greased pig contest every year and compete against the kids. They dress in full formal wear and combat boots.

MARTHA AND THE GREASED PIG My other favorite, two sisters who enter the greased pig contest every year and compete against the kids. They dress in full formal wear and combat boots.

PLAYLAND: THE GREAT SHARKBURGER SHORTAGE OF ‘95 When a well known fast food chain moved into the town, people waited for over 2 hours to get food. Eventually they ran out of burgers. Mayhem ensued. (The same restaurant was only a 30 minute drive away in the next town.)

PLAYLAND: THE GREAT SHARKBURGER SHORTAGE OF ‘95 When a well known fast food chain moved into the town, people waited for over 2 hours to get food. Eventually they ran out of burgers. Mayhem ensued. (The same restaurant was only a 30 minute drive away in the next town.)

Huck talking us through the collection that started his career. (pic by Shannon Cousino)

Huck talking us through the collection that started his career. (pic by Shannon Cousino)

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):

This gives you a scope of the size of these prints. Here is the centerpiece and one of the flanking panels (pic by Shannon Cousino).

This gives you a scope of the size of these prints. Here is the centerpiece and one of the flanking panels (pic by Shannon Cousino).

A bit of a closeup on the center panel. This is the Statue of Liberty captured in a noodling competition.

A bit of a closeup on the center panel. This is the Statue of Liberty captured in a noodling competition.

And the third panel, shoot ‘em up heads of state.

And the third panel, shoot ‘em up heads of state.

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.

The middle panel of Tommy Peeperz. Of special note, the hand cut boarder of sperm.

The middle panel of Tommy Peeperz. Of special note, the hand cut boarder of sperm.

This panel of Tommy Peeperz recounts Huck finding his father’s adult magazines. He was caught in the act by his mother. Why the plungers, you ask? Huck was the oldest of five children, and he once overheard his mother say to his father, “Jesus Joe, it’s like I got plungers attached to both my tits 24 hours a day! “ Magazines weren’t the only thing Huck found under the bed. There was also a book about the European countryside. In it, Huck saw his first ever Durer print. The print changed his life.

This panel of Tommy Peeperz recounts Huck finding his father’s adult magazines. He was caught in the act by his mother. Why the plungers, you ask? Huck was the oldest of five children, and he once overheard his mother say to his father, “Jesus Joe, it’s like I got plungers attached to both my tits 24 hours a day! “ Magazines weren’t the only thing Huck found under the bed. There was also a book about the European countryside. In it, Huck saw his first ever Durer print. The print changed his life.

After printing Tommy Peeperz, the papers were stained with a mixture of coffee and tea to make them look old. (Pic by Shannon Cousino.)

After printing Tommy Peeperz, the papers were stained with a mixture of coffee and tea to make them look old. (Pic by Shannon Cousino.)

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.

The middle panel depicting the transformative surgery.

The middle panel depicting the transformative surgery.

Brandy Baghead, the watermelon queen. Huck said cutting the watermelon was technically the most difficult woodblock carving he’s ever done.

Brandy Baghead, the watermelon queen. Huck said cutting the watermelon was technically the most difficult woodblock carving he’s ever done.

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:

Huck is currently working on a small set of prints about global warming (in addition to the Monkey Mountain Chronicle). Themed after the four seasons, here is summer.

Huck is currently working on a small set of prints about global warming (in addition to the Monkey Mountain Chronicle). Themed after the four seasons, here is summer.

WAR MADILLO. A play on Durer’s famous Rhinoceros and Huck’s comment on the current immigration policy. The first edition of the print was immediately purchased by the Library of Congress.  Huck was stunned to learn they hung it alongside Durer’s Rhinoceros.

WAR MADILLO. A play on Durer’s famous Rhinoceros and Huck’s comment on the current immigration policy. The first edition of the print was immediately purchased by the Library of Congress. Huck was stunned to learn they hung it alongside Durer’s Rhinoceros.

I love this photograph. We four bootcampers are intensely examining a dog penis that took Huck several days to carve in this print that was part of the Bloody Bucket series. (pic by Shannon Cousino)

I love this photograph. We four bootcampers are intensely examining a dog penis that took Huck several days to carve in this print that was part of the Bloody Bucket series. (pic by Shannon Cousino)

Of course, we did not see every print Huck has ever done. Here are several from his Hillbilly Kama Sutra collection. You can see this entire collection and nearly all his work at evilprints.com in the Gallery section.

Of course, we did not see every print Huck has ever done. Here are several from his Hillbilly Kama Sutra collection. You can see this entire collection and nearly all his work at evilprints.com in the Gallery section.

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.

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Huck spent a very hot evening grilling us dinner out on the sidewalk.

(pic by Shannon Cousino)

(pic by Shannon Cousino)