Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Rebel With A Cause

Posted in art by Jason Gray on November 8, 2009

l_e129c956f16260d3c798a68ee3eff8e6Riverfront Times photo.

St. Louis is a place that some critics would say time has forgot, it having experienced heavy declines in population since the 1960’s, and a loss in industry and national stature which undermines that evanescence of residents. The river city along the Big Muddy became, for many years, a rusted monolith, heaped upon the setting horizon of the American manufacturing belt. However, I’ve noticed something interesting since moving back to my hometown from a ten-year stint in Chicago. St. Louis has become home to a regional freakery; a special breed of strangeness that sloughs off a desire to become New York or Los Angeles, or even to emulate the types of art, music, fashion, food, etc. exported by those accepted epicenters of National and International Culture (Chicago suffers from this). No, St. Louis does its own thing; from a locally sustained foodie scene, to the idiosyncratic programming of the independent radio station, KDHX, to the work of one of the most ambitious printmakers currently at work in the United States, Tom Huck.

Tom Huck’s fascination with printmaking began at a young age, when a chance pilgrimage, from his rural hometown of Potosi, Missouri to the St. Louis Art Museum, brought him into contact with the work of the iconic printmaker, Albrecht Durer. Listening to Huck speak about the encounter today, is akin to observing a spiritual convert recount their first time hearing the voice of God. He was hooked, and his life thereafter spiraled into the chaos of an overzealous student endlessly pursuing the content of creation. What’s remarkable is that he seems to have found it.

“The Transformation of Brandy Baghead” is the first in a series of triptychs that will become Huck’s most ambitious undertaking to date, a planned fourteen, large-scale works, entitled, “Booger Stew”, that will keep him busy well into the next decade. This is due to not only their size; his process is laborious. Each of the triptychs are human-scale woodcuts that begin as small sketches on paper (their eventual reversal taken into account). From there, they are copied onto large blocks of cabinet-maker grade plywood, and inked in with red, magic markers to offset the wood against wood relief carving. The next year to years are spent in explicit concentration, as Huck carves them out. There are no mistakes, he says, because of his ascetic manner of working. The amount of focus and dedication that he puts into his work is immediately apparent from the moment you first view them. When this stage is complete, he presses the first edition at his printshop, Evil Prints, demonstrating to his trusted staff how the remaining editions, of 25-40, are to proceed. Once the printing is complete, he does not destroy his woodcuts, opting rather to carve a small “X” into them, in order to relegate them to retirement. From there, he embarks on designing the promotional components of his exhibitions, likening his print openings to rock concerts that sell buttons, t-shirts, etc.

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In the three-paneled work, “The Transformation of Brandy Baghead”, Huck draws influence from the absurdity and spectacle of American reality television. While his wife was pregnant, he says that they spent a large amount of time in front of the T.V. as a way to relax, and it was during this time that he first saw the Fox, extreme makeover competition, “The Swan”. The show features women who are considered “ugly ducklings”, that endure a drastic series of plastic surgeries in order to become a contestant in a beauty pageant wherein the winner receives the title of “The Swan”. He said it was like watching a car-wreck; his disbelief propelled him to continue watching. In the resulting work, Tom emphasizes the absurdity of these women putting themselves through such an event and our obsession with watching it. In the first panel, Brandy Baghead is queen of the Vegetable Festival, but wants bigger fame and broader notoriety. In the second panel, she undergoes her transformation into a chicken woman; this is a dizzying vision (surrounded by swans) of physical mutilation by a team of crackpot surgeons who stitch her up with catgut from a disemboweled feline. In the final panel, Brandy is skating Michelle Kwan-style, the winner of a spectacle entitled, “Skating with the Scars”. There are references everywhere in each of these; examples of Tom Huck’s scathing satirical eye. Parallel to the story of Brandy Baghead, Huck includes the life of an egg, which acts as a road sign, directing the viewer’s traffic, and as a thermometer gauging the degree of Brandy’s transformation (from slightly cracked to totally fried). However, Tom has more to say than just pointing out the obvious, after all, we all know that reality television is absurd (even reality television knows this about itself), but we continue to watch it anyway. If this were the only sentiment Huck expressed then the piece, despite its technical brilliance, would be narratively banal. After all, who needs another statement that mainstream American broadcasting is ridiculous and obtuse? What Tom does, however, is point the beam at us.

Cultural criticism is a tricky path to tread; it is laden with pratfalls and anyone seeking to navigate it ultimately slips at some point along the way. This is because most criticizers are afraid to place themselves within the scope of their critique. Tom Huck does this, and that’s why he has been so successful as a printmaker making comments about society and culture at large. He lives within the sphere of the absurd that his characters inhabit, and he doesn’t deny it. Maybe this is why printmaking is such a great medium for him; together with all of his heroes, Durer, Posada, Hogarth, Tom isn’t trying to change what we all do, he is trying to show us how insane we are for doing it. The Divine Comedy of human existence is what he relishes in; it is the source of his satire. That said, Brandy Baghead, as the “Queen of the Vegetable Festival” is just as absurd as Brandy Baghead as the “Chicken Champion on Skates”; the all-natural is just as absurd as the all-artificial; the all- vegetarian is just as crazy as the all-carnivorous; et al. What he is showing us is that despite the world coming at us in phenomenally, stereoscopic terms, we perceive it through the limited, monocular terms of our individual identities. We want to be all or nothing; we reject the in-between, the parallel, and the balance. And this is the fundamental problem with our culture; we lack the ability to live in symbiosis. Tom Huck knows this, he shows us this, and yet offers no suggestions for how we can fix it. Rather, he’s having too much fun pointing out how absurdly hilarious it is.

In art historical terms, many artists have tried to create an art that speaks to the masses. Something, which rejects its traditional limitation of being a consumption only for the Bourgeoisie, and that opens it up to the broader spectrum of people, who are typically less wealthy, that the artists feel they better associate with. The Social Realists maybe got closest, in the sense that they concentrated on making murals that were supposed to belong to everyone, but their political agendas invariably limited their outreach. The New York School sought to democratize painting in a way that would eschew the tradition of academic sponsorship, but wound up facilitating a further distancing of the everyman from the art canon. What I’ve witnessed in spending time with Huck’s work on display is that it does not close off doors. It isn’t limited to a particular social or political dogma, or religious association, and it does not distance by way of a complex and difficult to penetrate abstraction. It makes fun of the art system as often as it references the profound history of printmaking. In his own way, Huck has mastered what so many before him sought to achieve; he has found a way to connect with the everyman, in everyone, and that, if for nothing else, is an admirable feat, indeed.

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“Tom Huck and the Rebellious Tradition of Printmaking”, on view at the St. Louis Art Museum through November, 15, 2009, presents Tom Huck together with many of his influences including Albrecht Durer, Max Beckmann, Jose Posada and more.

From S.L.A.M.’s website:

“Focused around the presentation of artist Tom Huck’s newest woodblock prints, a large scale triptych titled The Transformation of Brandy Baghead, this exhibition brings together more than a dozen works of art by seven other artists to illustrate what influences Huck.
His latest piece, The Transformation of Brandy Baghead, depicts a woman who is having herself turned into a chicken in order to enter an ice skating contest. It is a satirical and absurd response to the contemporary phenomenon of reality television and plastic surgery.

Tom Huck and the Rebellious Tradition of Printmaking, curated by Eric Lutz, assistant curator of prints, drawings and photographs, will be on view in Gallery 209 through November 15, 2009.”

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