Los Angeles

Douglas Huebler

Kuhlenschmidt/Simon Gallery

Conceptual artist Douglas Huebler began “Variable Piece no. 70,” his all-encompassing work in progress, in 1971. His stated intention was to “photographically document, to the extent of his capacity, the existence of everyone alive in order to produce the most authentic and inclusive representation of the human species that may be assembled in that manner.”

The recent phototext series “Crocodile Tears,” 1985, is part of this broader proposal; it is a wry and often very witty attempt to evaluate contemporary human existence by focusing on clichéd behavior patterns, cultural ideologies, and the stereotypes of received information. The project began in 1978 as a screenplay investigating the issues of value and authenticity within the contemporary art world but quickly developed into a series of enigmatic and ironic “brief fictions,” storyboard vignettes incorporating photographs, drawings, texts, and aphorisms. Presented as wall narratives or newspaper comic strips, these open texts set up an informational suprastructure that is then processed conceptually by the viewer/reader.

Huebler’s latest exhibition high lighted two specific scenarios from the phototext series: Buried Treasure and The Signature Artist. The former is concerned with the character Thornton, an art collector anxious to buy a Degas for his wife “without having to pay auction prices.” He approaches the highly dubious Gregory, head of an international group of art forgers who create realistic fakes in the style of Modern masters; these are passed off as long-lost masterpieces that have been “buried” in family collections for several generations. The deal is cemented, and Gregory passes on the assignment to his team of painters. The Signature Artist deals with a similar theme, that of art as an esthetic craft and the product of creative inspiration, as opposed to a mere economic means of support. In Huebler’s narrative, the Signature Artist is a contemporary painter to whom a friend relates the story of the fictional Napoleon Painter, a 19th-century production-line artisan who committed suicide rather than face fame as a second-rate academic hack.

Huebler presents these narratives as wall texts, excerpting scenes from the screenplay and juxtaposing them with photographs from “Variable Piece no. 70.” The photographs are accompanied by Huebler’s hallmark aphorism: “Represented above is at least one person who . . . ,” followed by a vaguely unspecific cliché such as “ . . . always seems to be swimming upstream.” Alternating with the wall texts and photographs are Gregory’s staffs “actual” fakes (a pseudo Georges Seurat, Edgar Degas, Giorgio de Chirico, etc.), the “Signature Artist’s” derivative abstract paintings and the “Napoleon Painter’s” reliefs. The paintings are superbly rendered pastiches that could be long-lost masterpieces or (following another Huebler character, “The Great Corrector, Eric Lord ”) merely a triumph of technique over imagination.

Huebler’s strategy is particularly complex insofar as it reduces “reality” to an interlocking series of arbitrary yet seemingly concrete signs. In this respect, his oeuvre closely resembles that of Matt Mullican. The latter, however, attempts to order the universe through a form of international metaphysical signage, whereas Huebler prefers to translate human experience into an open narrative, in which every life or event could conceivably be integrated as one of innumerable subjects or asides. The work itself is a slippery melange of painting, sculpture, journalism, literature, and unrealized film, a Jorge Luis Borges-ian universe where fiction is confused with documentation, and source and footnote are on equal footing with the plot itself.

The paintings, although they seemingly constitute the “content ” of the exhibition, are in fact merely the outward documentation of a larger scenario (call it life or novel), not ends in themselves. The so-called masterpiece is demystified, stripped of its aura—not by mechanical reproduction (as per Walter Benjamin ) but by becoming one series of arbitrary signs within a labyrinth of signification. In order to create a viable and intelligible narrative, Huebler has transformed the paintings into as much a cliché as one of his ubiquitous aphorisms, a pithy comment notonly on the homogenization and commercialization of esthetics by the art market but also on our overall tendency to reduce everything to easily digestible archetypes. Huebler’s art “metacommunicates” its own craft (through the beautifully rendered fakes) yet simultaneously undermines it by raising concept over execution—a paradox Huebler doubtlessly finds highly amusing.

Colin Gardner