PRINT January 1968

West Coast Grotesque: Stephan Von Huene

AMIDST LAST APRIL’S OPENING NIGHT festivities of the Los Angeles County Museum’s “American Sculpture of the Sixties,” the one work that met with spontaneous applause and general enthusiasm was Stephan Von Huene’s Kaleidophonic Dog. Engagingly delightful it seemed: a music box of toots and gongs cycled to perform at regular intervals. The small sculptural animal atop it, on his back, gleefully (or hysterically) kicked his legs in the air, and opened and closed his clacking denture-filled jaws. A nearby entry, fully as large though silent, formally as involved, was generally overlooked or poorly remembered. The Hermaphroditic Horseback Rider, with its complex symbolic union of heart, saddle, and genitalia, represents a more explicitly sexual side of the artist’s work. The catalog photograph records the Dog in an incomplete state and his biographical data is the briefest of all notations. Stephan Von Huene, at thirty-five, has yet to be seen even locally in a one-man exhibition and is perfectly content to be considered a regional (and, therefore, definitely non-mainstream) artist. Though his work has been shown in the Los Angeles area for a half-dozen years, it remains as startling, difficult, hermetic, private, and frequently misinterpreted as ever.

Von Huene represents yet another example of a sculptor who received his training as a painter, and his work of 1961–62 consisted of dense, heavily pigmented, directly symbolic paintings. These white and black crosses parallel the general efforts of several Los Angeles painters of his generation (as Bengston and Irwin) to move away from New York expressionist influences. Von Huene’s personal adaptation of collage and assemblage was joined with newly opened possibilities of a viable approach to dimensional surfaces and constructions. The obvious innovators in this area were Johns and Rauschenberg in their use of impasto and the agitation of a physical skin of paint, and their attachment of materials and objects to the picture plane. Locally, at the very end of the ’50s, Kienholz had passed from painting to assemblage and was joined in the early ’60s by a number of younger artist-object makers. Von Huene’s cruciform, heraldic images of this period, on investigation, were bare and powerfully mysterious, and surprisingly were followed by a series of figurative panels from 1962–64. Utilizing a raw color range and bold drawing, they are decidedly graceless and forcefully naive in style. Here the worked surfaces and grossness of execution bring to mind the “art brut” sources of Dubuffet or the gothic awkwardness of German Expressionism, particularly the violence and distortions of Dix and Grosz. Dimensional considerations accompany the paint with the gluing on of resin-treated fabrics, dresses, and underwear. The bodies are broken into separate units, sometimes created out of pigment, other areas reproduced with the actuality of volumes.

The problem of the rectangular boundary of the support was “solved” by painted, flattened, background scenes. The isolating distance of the framing edge was, however, destroyed on occasion. In 1963 he introduced movement: the dress of one Woman hangs past the bottom of the canvas, and weighted arms permit a certain amount of animation. In another animated panel, constructed along the principles of a children’s toy—the traditional jumping jack represents the birth of a child. Pulling a cord caused the swinging of the mother’s arms and legs and the appearance of the baby.

The years of 1963 and 1964 are crucial in the artist’s development for his researches stake out clearly defined boundaries, and inaugurate several features for further development. His subject matter from this point onward is figurative, generated from caricature. The caricature may be amusing or satiric at its simplest level, but in Von Huene’s hands his subjects are clearly, if tidily, grotesque. A clue to his method of distortion is his searching out a relationship between anatomical sections, parts of the body, organs, and other objects. Central to his work, he states, is a concentration upon (a hypersensitive interpretation of) themes involving basic body functions: breathing, eating, smoking, eliminating, ejecting other fluids, and giving birth. Literary allusions and common phrases also play an important part in generating an image.

Two series of graphics point up the eccentric methods and materials which have come to particularize his creations. One series of multi-marked drawings was scratched and smudged into the kerosene lantern fumage of treated papers; another was collaged into graphic formations from marbleized papers made by the artist after researching old formulas. His involvement in elaborate and obscure crafts, and a Surrealist’s obsession with provoked materials and surfaces is set, in preference to the previous swiftness of expressionist handling. The naturally arrived at black and brown tonalities of these works point directly toward sculpture (bas-reliefs and free-standing) of bread, burnt wood, and leather. He decided at this point to favor, “making the thing rather than an imagining.”

The bread sculptures were made of home-baked goods; shellacked, lacquered, or resined. No longer edibles, they are solid formations of processed organic substances—cooked, browned, aged, and patinaed. Displayed on platters, with added elements such as leather straps, laces, and buckles curiously juxtaposed, the breads are complete abstract entities, but disturbingly referential. The columnar pieces are more obviously figurative with the truncated bases suggesting they are the terminal endings of a body.

For the past three years his work has been executed with a leather finish. Idea sketches, but no detailed plans precede a piece; a sculpture is worked out directly, assembled from segments of shaped wood. Each section (and many are in progress at any one time) is covered with heavy tooled sheep leather which is wet, shaped, then glued (and sometimes nailed) to the surface, dyed, and finally positioned in the puzzle-piece construction. Certain parts may be sewn, braced with an armature, and stuffed. The use of straps and metal accessories as buckles and eyelets both for decoration and implied functionalism has led some observers to incorrectly suppose that he begins with actual leather goods. Instead he laboriously creates his own objects from raw materials. Certainly the cast off, segmented qualities of cannibalized objects are present, and their reassembly indicates merged functions and interchangeability of parts. The sense that they are highly artificial is extremely strong and all pervading. His subjects have included an inventory of heads, allegorical portraits, eyes, lips, arms, hands, genitals, legs, boots, shoes, feet, and carrying cases.

Isolated upon a pedestal the individual and abstracted parts are divorced and functionless, yet invested with the surprising power of a savage fetish or totem object. As Wolfgang Kayser (in The Grotesque in Art and Literature) explains this duality, “the mechanical object (or tool) is alienated by being brought to life, the human being by being deprived of it. Among the most persistent motifs of the grotesque we find human bodies reduced to puppets, marionettes and automata and their faces frozen into masks.” This Romantic motif was first utilized extensively in this century by de Chirico and continues to appear in numerous Surrealist works. One cannot escape calling to attention similarities to be found in Von Huene’s sculptures and Richard Lindner’s painted personages. It may be mere coincidence that the former is of German descent and the latter was born in that country.

Von Huene’s choice of leather is founded on clear-cut preferences and associations. As in the example of the primitive arts he consciously uses natural materials to realize organic subjects, and he enjoys the parallel of a leather hide providing a preserved surface skin, as in taxidermy. Both Wieland and E.T.A. Hoffman, commenting on Callot’s etchings of the commedia dell’arte, call attention in this regard to the chimeric, ironic, and mocking qualities found in the masks and costumes which contrast animal qualities with the distortions of the human form (Kayser, pp. 38–39). Most of the examples of comparison cited by the sculptor are nostalgic or romantic. Accentuating his regionalism he points out the western utilitarianism of saddles and other frontier leather items (buffer zones between man and animal), and the strength of character of combinations of these materials in certain pre-World War I furniture. Intimately connected with the hand-made and the traditionally crafted, wood and leather suggest, at another level, rugged masculinity, but also a precious, feminine luxuriousness. In color he prefers natural earth tones, the shades of traditional chiaroscuro, though his materials could be painted or dyed almost any color. Contemporary materials such as plastics, and extensive use of metal he finds personally unsympathetic, and the use of pure hues diverting from his forms and symbolism. He mentions the “golden glow” of Venetian Renaissance painting and points out the use of the very same colors and materials by musical instrument makers of Northern Italy during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Though his musical training is relatively limited and his involvement in machines stems from a youthful fascination with old Popular Mechanics magazines, three years ago he began construction on the Kaleidophonic Dog. From his interest in the human body as a machine and other functional objects, he has enlarged his concept of sculpture to include the humanized machine as an extension of man. Marveling at the inter-communication of the feel and sound of mechanisms in concert with human activities, he combined in this project a pneumatic sound-producing system with a kinetic sculpture. The system is vacuum-controlled pressure, where one set of valves activates percussive hammers and another set controls valves from the air chamber. The mechanical workings were activated to produce five different perforated tapes of varying lengths, and these were than arranged out of phase and combined to produce a coherent sound or musical pattern. Wherever possible the working parts were exposed. The sculpture, which made its appearance in the final two months of work, is integrated into the exposed works in that its body terminates at midsection in carefully curved pipes. His future projects include the possibilities of combining vacuum and pressure systems (as, he says, in breathing in and out) and shapes which will inflate and deflate. He plans to add music as the imagery and interrelated mechanics suggest its necessity, but a little orchestra of “music boxes” producing random sound patterns is considered. Incredibly complex, these plans project him almost outside the area of “sculpture”—sculpture even as fantastic objects—but his singular development already suggests a complete lack of interest in categories.

Fidel A. Danieli