Peter Huttinger

Toni Birckhead Gallery

In Peter Huttinger’s early, edgy art of the mid ’70s, a small cast of rather sordid characters were intended to symbolize opposed ideas and ideologies. However, both Asphaltum. a red-neck punk Popeye, and the Black Feminist, a curious merging of Grace Jones and Olive Oyl, were wiry scratchy and a little mean. They looked more alike than different, the contrast overly literal: white/black, male/female. These characters’ real opposites—toothy bunnies, blooming tulips. and curvaceous classical vases—entered Huttinger’s repertoire a few years ago, conceived, fittingly, in bright, bold, smoothly outlined shapes. Traces of the weird old friends remained, but they went almost unnoticed. Anger, lust, and political fervor were upstaged by gaiety, love, and a simplistic sense of well-being. The ragged, jagged psychological edge that had made Huttinger’s lust interesting, if disconcerting, was almost obliterated.

This is again apparent in Huttinger’s appropriately named “Entanglement” drawings of 1986, where the two earlier types of images have been combined and placed on equal footing. In these works, the comic-book literalism has given way to a more broadly symbolic and visual iconography and the psychological tension is more integral to the imagery. The bunny teeth have a little more bite to them; the daisy stems and rabbit ears twist around. snakelike, and turn into sexual organs. A variety of primitive signs and symbols that hover between shape and line emerge from the allover patterns. These drawings on the scale of paintings have the tautness of a painted surface and the immediacy of a drawn image, with visible erasures and preliminary marks shadowing many of the outlines. They are black and white, like line drawings, with filled-in spots of red (or red and black), like passages in a painting.

In other drawings in this show rabbit teeth and tulip petals. “feminine” vases and bodily parts intertwine to create new hard-edged yet organic forms that float freely on a white field. The ambiguity of the imagery is matched here, too, by a certain ambiguity of medium. Colored pencil is applied so thickly to gessoed paper that it reads as paint, even though some linear marks are visible. Loose pencil dust contributes to the atmospheric, painterly depth of each drawing. The same images that are caught in webs in the “Entanglement” series are somehow suspended in these “Buck-Teeth” and “Split Vases,” all from 1986. Perhaps unwittingly Huttinger has set drawing against painting, just as he has opposed good to bad, life to death, and love to lust in individual images and works.

Unfortunately his more obvious and conscious attempt to oppose two styles in his paintings is less successful. In the series “Capillaries,” 1986, crisp, brightly colored images from the drawings are inserted into geometric shapes carved into mottled wax surfaces, which have the depth of wall reliefs. Although the insertions and their surroundings are very different from one another, they are not exactly opposed. Rather, the figures and the grounds are of different orders: they seem to be products of unrelated sensibilities. The almost mysterious, irregular waxen surfaces with hits and pieces of things buried within them promise weathered, broken shards in the openings, and what the viewer finds is a new picture of a vase (or bunny teeth), intact and glowing.

The source of the kind of imagery Huttinger seems to be looking for may he found on the scene of an archaeological dig, in a Gustav Klimt painting, or in his own “Entanglements” (the drawings as well as the hand-colored etchings related to them). Yet he seems to find his way most clearly when he isn’t looking, or following a set program. The most appealing offering in this show was a little suite of etchings and drypoints entitled “Good Morning,” 1986. Here images from the current work are combined to form characters—rabbit-eared tulip people—and placed in a quasi-illusionistic space. Rendered in his scraggly early style, these prints have an assurance—a casual inventiveness—that Huttinger’s work has not exhibited before.

Jayne Merkel