During its run at the Hammer Museum this winter, Julian Hoeber’s Demon Hill (2010) attracted around 17,000 visitors, something of a record for the Hammer Projects series. On the second floor of the museum, Hoeber installed his version of the small buildings constructed at “gravitational mystery spots,” roadside attractions especially popular here in California. Filing through a small doorway, past a guard and up a few steps, patrons entered a plain, room-size plywood structure tilted at 25 degrees off true horizontal. Inside, the laws of physics seemed to fly out the window. Visitors leaned alarmingly, a chair clung to a wall and objects rolled uphill. The spectacle was made freakier by the room’s fluorescent lighting, which added to the general unsteadiness.
Born in Philadelphia and now based in Los Angeles, Hoeber has gained a name for himself for his hypnotic, Op-arty paintings, bullet-sprayed bronze heads and an early short film, Killing Friends (2001), which is in the ironic mold of Wes Craven’s Scream or Brian De Palma’s Body Double. In his work, perceptual concerns of Minimalism, Earth art and the Space and Light movement are filtered through pop-cultural beliefs about aliens and the supernatural, as Hoeber looks anew at art history and art-theoretical discourses, space and perception. Currently in the pipeline are an infinitely expandable modular bench and adult-size, Shaker-inspired his-and-hers cradles. Nothing seems to be too proscribed or way-out to become grist for his mill.
We now see that the sleek designs and industrial materials in works by Robert Irwin, John McCracken and other California artists owe a debt to the vernacular monuments of roadside tourism. Though anything but finessed, with its rough clapboard construction and spooky interior, Hoeber’s house falls into that tradition. Haunted shacks first appeared during the 1930s as diversions for the newly motored classes, and Hoeber plays on the double whammy of theme park and art in his title, which puns on “de Menil,” the name of the famous art collectors—wordplay that is itself a kind of swoon or syncope.
In this spirit, during the show, the Hammer held screenings of Vertigo and Jacques Tati’s Playtime. And Hoeber’s father, Francis W., a well-known social historian, amateur magician and, during his student years at Columbia University, a member of Brian De Palma’s acting troupe (he appeared in Wotan’s Wake, 1962), led a tour through his son’s installation. As if by a wave of the hand, the jamais vu—a feeling of unfamiliarity within a familiar situation, rather than, as in déjà vu, a feeling of the familiar within the unfamiliar—fell neatly into place.
Photo: View of Julian Hoeber’s Demon Hill, 2010, mixed-medium installation; at the Hammer Museum