ArtsATL > Art+Design > Review: E.K. Huckaby’s enigmatic alchemy mixes science and Southern Gothic at {Poem 88}

Review: E.K. Huckaby’s enigmatic alchemy mixes science and Southern Gothic at {Poem 88}

EK Huckaby: "Please Take Care" (2012), oil on panel.
E.K. Huckaby’s “Please Take Care” (2012), oil on panel.

E.K. Huckaby’s “The Ocean Casts the Greatest Shadow,” at {Poem 88} through February 9, is something like a select retrospective, circa 2005-2012, of a distinct sensibility, a self-conscious blend of science and Southern Gothic that makes the occasional comparison of Huckaby with Renaissance magus John Dee seem appropriate. Like Dee (but without, importantly, Dee’s claimed angelic revelations), Huckaby is interested more or less equally in the behavior of chemical substances and the behavior of human beings, and ways in which he might use both to bring about unconventional results in his art objects and in the people who view them.

Huckaby remarked at his recent artist’s talk that he prefers not to give his viewer too much information, visual or verbal, and accepts the consequence that the viewer may settle on interpretations that he considers not just wrong but wrongheaded. Apart from the exhibition’s general tone of darkness and antiquity, there are few cues to the possible overall meaning of the images.

Huckaby’s “Uneaten Archetypes” (2012), oil on panel.

It might be possible, for example, to impose a Freudian reading on a line of three-dimensional objects that semi-begins with an appropriated clear plastic Transparent Woman figure filled with layers of hard-to-identify materials and ends with increasingly vaginal ceramic vases arranged according to depth of color. But that would be a stupidly wrong way of looking at this lovely but vaguely unsettling assemblage. It is difficult to say what a right way of seeing it might be, and that may well be its real point.

The paintings here are adaptations of images from vintage photographs of odd details of already odd perceptions of reality — the lamps crowded into a department store lamp section, to cite a representative example. It is nearly impossible to identify some of the objects depicted, and those with what seems like an obvious meaning are likely to be misinterpreted — the woven basket in “Please Take Care,” to cite only one case, is not meant to be a simple market basket but the basket in which foundling infants were left on doorsteps.

Some paintings depart from the dominant palette of blacks and dark browns — which Huckaby achieved through tirelessly innovative study of the chemical peculiarities of pigments and glazes — and from visual ambiguity, substituting psychological ambiguity. “Night Fruit” presents brightly colored boxes of fruit in the dimness of an improbably arranged fruit market in which a single lamp illuminates rows of melons and hanging bunches of grapes and bananas. “Forsaken Target” is a realistically painted portrayal of an arrow-filled outdoor target, peeling from the effects of neglect and weather.

Huckaby likes to point out our persistent desire to isolate moments and objects from the context of the world’s continuous flow, photographs being an example of this wish that has frequently been cited by theorists. Huckaby prefers to use such visual metaphors as “Firecrackers in Glue,” in an older sculpture in which potentially explosive objects are neutralized by being sealed in a transparent container and arranged tidily (though not precisely) in rows, as though they were part of some perverse taxonomy of small dangerous things.

“Quasi-Finale” (2012), graphite and amber on panel.

“We insist on seeing things as they briefly are,” as the final line of Huckaby’s three-line artist’s statement has it. The paradox of the show’s title might be taken as illustrative of this insistence: even if the ocean is the largest single object on earth apart from the earth itself, its fluid nature means that any of its waves that could possibly cast shadows are so transient that nothing short of a tsunami could generate a shadow long-lasting enough to avoid escaping our notice.

My reasoning about the behavior of light rays and the fluid dynamics of the ocean might well be wrong — this isn’t Huckaby’s interpretation, and I have a flawed recollection of my college course in “physics for non-physicists.” But the title calls attention to human perception and how human assumptions about the world shape that perception, which we think of as objective and too obvious to be worth thinking about.

Huckaby’s anxiety-arousing objects call attention to the same phenomenon, unless we doze enough to consider them merely quaint reasons for a pleasurable shudder — as in their description as “Southern Gothic” with which I began this review. Despite a modest penchant for the macabre and a less modest one for the theatrical, Huckaby is one of our most analytical and conceptual artists.

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