On my tour of central London exhibitions in early 2010, one small show stood out and stayed with me, although it was hard to decipher exactly what was so troubling about the 14 works—individual photographs or series—at Josh Lilley Gallery. Most of the images came from the 1870s, and had been rephotographed and enlarged to the 4-by-3-foot range. Some of the source pictures were originally hand-tinted, notably those dealing with sentimental subjects such as street urchins. One portrait, titled Ancestor (2008), appeared to have been partially wiped away, as though in a deliberate act of memory eradication. Most intriguing of all was a suite of 12 photographs of drawings that depict the night sky in successive months, with little crosshatches denoting stars and inky squiggles outlining constellations. Titled “1862” (2005), the work records sketches by one Johanna Kotz von Dobrz. But it was Michael Huey, an American artist, who selected and shot the astronomical schemas from a century and a half ago. His show, in turn, was organized for the gallery by the Vienna-based writer and curator Jasper Sharp.
Although the headless, smudged Ancestor has a horror-tinged, Francis Bacon quality, the most disturbing aspect of Huey’s exhibition was the lack of interpretative aids. Even the title, “Story Problems,” only exacerbated this gallerygoer’s anxiety. A story problem is a mathematical brainteaser framed in words, and the show’s minimally informative gallery sheet cited Gustave Flaubert’s nonsensical version:
A ship sails the ocean. It left Boston with a cargo of wool. It grosses 200 tonnes. It is bound for Le Havre. The mainmast is broken, the cabin boy is on deck, there are 12 passengers aboard, the wind is blowing East-North-East, the clock points to a quarter past three in the afternoon. It is the month of May. How old is the captain?
Huey, too, poses riddles: where do these images come from, where do they belong, and what is their power? Like Flaubert, he seems to have formulated his enquiry in a way that precludes resolution. Undeterred, I initially tried to unpack each of Huey’s pictorial puzzles without help from the artist or others, but I kept getting stuck in the show’s looping, internecine “games,” to borrow the 2009 title of one brightly hand-painted view of two suspicious-looking fellows crouched over what may be a stage “rock,” apparently gambling. Eventually, I gave in to curiosity and asked Huey and Sharp how these disparate prints might all be connected. It turns out that the erasure of the ur-Ancestor was not an artistic decision but the result of the owner’s mother, some 40 years ago, accidentally spilling a glass of white wine on a watercolor-on-ivory miniature of Baron Adolf Bachofen-Echt, a distant relation of an Austrian friend of Huey’s. Johanna Kotz von Dobrz, the teenage baroness whose beautiful astronomy homework was on display, was Huey’s partner’s great-grandmother.
Huey, in other words, is at the center of this tangled web of associations. Born in 1964 in Traverse City, Mich., he studied German at Amherst College in Massachusetts before moving to Austria (where he’s lived since 1989) to take a master’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna. From the age of 12, however, something else has been driving the artist. Researching his lineage, Huey discovered that his German-speaking roots go back to Switzerland, Germany and Austria-Hungary. After amassing a cache of 1,500 photographs as well as associated interviews and archival materials, Huey self-published a book of his genealogical findings under the title The Place of Beginning: On the Huey, Mautz, Lebzelter, McGowan Families and Their Kin (Vienna, 2001).
This familial obsession permeated Huey’s first two solo exhibitions, “Full Death” (2005) at Galerie Lisa Ruyter and “Betsy and I Killed the Bear” (2007) at Charim Galerie, both in Vienna. “Full Death” encompassed reshot photographs of 19th-century forebears and strangers, commingled with photos of historical documents and later research materials (including a receipt stamped “full death” to verify payment for a relative’s completed death certificate). “Betsy and I” was derived exclusively from candy-colored Huey-family snaps—35mm Kodachrome and Ektachrome transparencies—taken in the American Midwest in the 1940s and ’50s by his grandfather and great-grandfather. Aunt Dorothy (who, according to a press release, mysteriously uttered the show’s cryptic title phrase long ago) comes across as old-fashioned movie-star glamorous; Dad looks like a ’50s college kid in his prime; and the group portraits Swimmers (2004) and New House (2006) recall the family photographs Gerhard Richter has occasionally used as a basis for his paintings. Yet despite Huey’s claim in the show’s catalogue that his treatment of these forgotten keepsakes—reshooting, enlargement, public presentation—brought to light an “evocative archaeological find whose significance is not immediately discernible,” the project lacked any obvious significance beyond that of documenting an upper-middle-class family tree. Roland Barthes, who in Camera Lucida entwines his theory of the nature of photography with the death of his mother, taught viewers to ask: where’s the punctum, or point of interest? In other words, what’s in it for us?
Another Viennese show, this time at Blumen in 2007, broadened Huey’s purview as an artist/archivist. Titled “Ruined Album,” it featured shots of the vandalized remains of an embossed, leather-bound 19th-century volume sadly divested of its photographs. The 160 empty holders, each hand-labeled for its missing image (“le prince Auersperg,” “la princesse Gisele”), bespeak a cruel reversal of Huey’s attempts at historical preservation. (The portraits, according to a press release, were removed in recent times for more lucrative individual sale.) By exhibiting the album pages—readymade but rephotographed, with their pictures vanished—Huey not only set up an anonymous counterpart to his intensely private hoard of found materials but implicitly questioned the legitimacy of his own role as “author” of the appropriation-based works he often exhibits.
Also a volte-face was Huey’s 2007 solo show “Keep in Safe Place” at Newman Popiashvili in New York, where he first displayed his own digital photographs of various objects related to safekeeping: a deposit-box key, shredded inventory lists from his grandfather’s business, family items in storage, the sheet-shrouded furniture of a closed-up summerhouse and two wire models for chairs designed by a recently deceased friend, the Russian-born Austrian architect Anna-Lülja Praun (1906-2004). Printed as color negatives, the photographs portray these subjects as ghostly shadows of themselves.
Subsequently, with the entire field of photography at his disposal, Huey has been increasingly cagey about whether his imagery is invented, found, taken from a distant relative, altered by his camera, manipulated in a computer or doctored in the printing process. With each new project, speculation about these options—alone or in combination—comes dizzyingly into play. Next winter, a show at Newman Popiashvili will highlight the artist’s spectral color negatives of cupboard shelves loaded with heirloom glassware and china.A large, ambitious body of work has ensued from what Huey calls “intermarriages” between different techniques and categories of materials, secondhand or otherwise.1 For the 2009 exhibition “ASH, inc.” at Song Song in Vienna, he began with the name of a now defunct family investment firm—itself taken from the initials of his paternal grandfather, Arthur Sandmeyer Huey—and brought together photographs and objects into a time-shifting meditation on loss, destruction and restitution. The show contained three sculptures: a rack containing 14 years’ worth of checks from his grandfather’s business; a black box, inlaid with the words “TIME/WILL/TELL,” opened enough to reveal three ingots of silver that were purchased in part through the sale of silver serving pieces inherited by Huey; and an assemblage of correspondence-related materials, including a postage scale and the package in which a relative’s ashes were sent through the mail. Notwithstanding this foray into three-dimensional work, Huey’s focus was—and is—primarily on photography and its unreliable transference of memories.
“ASH, inc.” included in its catalogue an old sepia image of an erupting Mount Vesuvius juxtaposed with a 1964 color photo of a mother and child looking out over a snowy landscape and a curving inlet, one that echoes—at a great remove in space and time—the Bay of Naples in the accompanying photo. A related work, Ash Cloud (2008), Huey’s rephotographed version of an 1872 shot of Vesuvius dwarfed by its own billowing plume of smoky debris, offered another riff on the show’s punning title. Along with this wordplay came a photograph of a Pompeian mural that boasts a convoluted history reminiscent of Flaubert’s story problem. As outlined in the catalogue’s timeline, the tale goes like this: A mural depicting animals, human and/or godly figures and fantastic architectural elements is painted in Pompeii in 64 a.d. and buried by the volcanic eruption in 79 a.d. Rediscovered in the 18th century, the mural is reconstructed from fragments as a drawing in the 19th century. A photograph of the drawing, shot around 1870, is then hand-colored and placed in a souvenir album. This picture deteriorates over the years until Huey rephotographs it and blows it up to wall size in 2008. And here, if you can work it out, is the rub: To what extent has the image changed—in appearance, in significance—after 2,000 years and multiple metamorphoses and translations?
So it is with all of Huey’s image-making. An archive is consulted and several of its numbers are salvaged, reprinted and enlarged. Lifted from their original context, these photographs become repositories for present-day storytelling and myth, for conjecture and happenstance. Of course, such artistic devices—of historical image recuperation and misremembered connections to the past—have been prevalent in contemporary painting since Richter and Anselm Kiefer, and can be found in the photographic work of other German artists like Hans-Peter Feldmann, who mines vernacular sources to compile his idiosyncratic collections (women’s knees, footballers, mountains, airplanes), or Peter Piller, who culls press images and groups them into categories such as “Policemen Searching” or “Vandalism.”
As global exhibitions like New York’s “Deep Storage” (1998) at P.S.1 and “Archive Fever” (2008) at the International Center of Photography [see A.i.A., May ’08] have attested, artists today often find a wealth of strategic possibilities in archives, whether pre-existing or invented. And we have lately seen a trend for art inspired by the semi-autobiographical writings of Germany’s W.G. Sebald. (In 2006, for example, Tate Modern staged a Sebaldian group show named after his book The Rings of Saturn.) Certainly Sebald’s meandering inquiries into individual and collective consciousness, interwoven with historical digressions, memoirs and occasional photographs, may well have informed Huey, even though the artist avows a greater debt to, and preference for, Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Huey doesn’t so much want to drag up repressed memories or familial connections as to capture them anew, perhaps even creating entirely fictional ones along the way. He has likened this process to “being sought out by the material, not the other way around.”
Julio Cortázar’s 1959 short story “Las babas del diablo,” which was translated into English as “Blow-Up” and inspired Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film of that name, might suggest a way of looking at Huey’s relationship to source material. In the Argentine’s elliptical tale, a photojournalist enlarges an image he’s taken earlier in the day of a young man and an older woman, apparently in a love tryst. With every darkroom magnification he witnesses a new horror being revealed in the scene: first it’s a forced seduction or maybe a kidnapping, then the youth’s enslavement and possible murder. Huey’s work, likewise, prompts an underlying struggle to discern the real from the imagined, to correctly assess the supposed verisimilitude of the photographic image. The artist’s magnified, enhanced versions of history sometimes resemble falsified documents. Like a fake passport, they offer a superficial likeness but remain profoundly unreliable about true identity and empirical facts.
Huey’s reticence—he supplies little explanatory information when his works are displayed—was vividly reflected in the exhibition “Don’t Say Things,” on view in summer and fall 2009 at the Kunsthalle Wien. The show, which took its title from a Ralph Waldo Emerson adage, featured a looped video of the artist’s great-grandfather, Richard K. Huey, filmed in the 1920s swallowing a hardboiled egg. His gesture, continuously repeated, comes across as a comic take on Emerson’s words: “Things said in conversation are chalk eggs. Don’t say things.”
For the solo show “Houseguests,” mounted this spring at the Galerie Schloss Damtschach, Huey reshot his step-great-grandfather’s photographs (made in the 1950s) of American interiors adorned with mock 18th-century European furnishings and placed them in the complementarily pastel-colored rooms of the Schloss Damtschach (built in the 1820s) near the Austrian-Italian border. Once again in these wry photographs, Americana both vies with and assimilates into historical precedent. Indeed, the notion of “houseguest” may be a key to Huey’s entire body of work, with its incessant parade of strange places and faces, its visitations to and from the ambiguous past. The artist’s shows—like his individual images—convey a sense of entering a space, physical and psychological, where one has been invited but can never feel entirely at home.
After I left Huey’s debut London exhibition, his ideas gradually but insistently insinuated themselves into my mind in an almost unwelcome manner. Not too long before this, in a discussion about my own descendants, my father had recounted that the Ward family hailed from Vienna and, before that, Hamburg, where they manufactured violins, double basses and other musical instruments. (It may just be a coincidence that Huey lives and works in Vienna, the birthplace of psychoanalysis, but when it comes to the exorcism of personal heritage through photography, his investigations are more than just nostalgic. Like Freudian exercises, they not only echo his past, albeit erratically, but also hold up a suitably cracked and misty mirror to our own.) However, continued my father, sometime in the 1930s the Schildt family, as they were then known, were forced into exile by the Nazis, changing their overtly Jewish name to Child and finally to Ward, a name once given to any watchman or guard. More to the point, it’s now a common, everyman’s surname that is easy to hide behind. All of this remains incomplete, anecdotal and lacking in documentation. But then that’s my story problem. I guess we’ve all got one to solve.
Unless otherwise identified, Michael Huey quotations are from an undated artist’s statement sent to the author in April 2010.
Michael Huey’s show “Story Problems” appeared at Josh Lilley Gallery, London, Jan. 29-Mar. 6. “Houseguests” was on view at Galerie Schloss Damtschach, Austria, Apr. 24-May 22. A solo exhibition by the artist will take place at Newman Popiashvili, New York, Jan. 20-Feb. 12, 2011.
OSSIAN WARD is a London-based art writer.