Thomas Huber

Museum für Gegenwartskunst, mit Emanuel Hoffmann-Stiftung

“When we look at a painting,” says Thomas Huber, “we’re faced with an enigma. It becomes apparent in the distance that we perceive there, the strange illusion of depth of the pictorial space. Looking at the painting, we feel as if we were entering it, but in fact we stay just where we began, on the surface. . . . The viewer is caught between these two poles—the depth perspective of the painting and the fact that it has been painted.” This passage, from Huber’s text Das Hochzeitsfest (The wedding feast)—a text that he wrote to accompany his series of paintings of the same name—refers to a property of illusionistic art on which much of his imagery appears to play. The essay also illustrates his frequent use of texts to augment the reality of his pictures, describing how they were made and reinforcing their foundation. Early works of Huber’s, paintings such as Rede über die Sintflut (Discourse on the Flood, 1982), Rede zur Schöpfung (Discourse on the Creation, 1982), or Rede in der Schule (Discourse in the school, 1984), were completely embedded within verbal discourses, which the artist delivered once or twice as lectures accompanying and augmenting them. The presence of these accompanying texts underlines the didactic nature of Huber’s work. His use of language introduces a logical system corresponding to the methodical structure of the paintings themselves. What is fascinating is the way this logical substructure is employed as a poetic device. Picture and text, for all their apparent clarity, always revolve about the enigma of the surface that ultimately constitutes the image.

This is exemplified by the oldest of the groups of works shown here in Basel, “Das Hochzeitsfest,” 1985–86, a series of 3 sketchbooks of watercolors and 16 oil paintings, all but one of which are studies for the large, final painting. These studies are individual iconographic units out of which this large canvas is built. Here and in the text, it is as if Huber were illustrating—and analyzing for the viewer the grammar of his language of images. But the resulting transparency is illusory, since each study introduces a new dimension of content. The studies at first seem uncomplicated and straightforward, but they reveal themselves more and more as autonomous images, the formulation of their contents in the text only superficially explanatory. The web they weave is complex, veiling their clarity. Thus the overall composition of the large picture is gradually entwined in a nearly impenetrable network of interconnections. The studies are integrated into the overall composition, incorporated as pictures within the picture, where they elaborate its syntax in such a way as to bury it under an avalanche of subordinate clauses.

In this series Huber tries to make the viewer aware of the whole process of discovering and creating imagery—the working process of the artist, if you will, and also, in a different way, of the viewer. The poetically naive quality of his imagery conceals a strong intellectual component. Two new groups of works in the show—“Walser, Salz und Bilder” (Water, salt, and pictures) and “Die Urgeschichte der Bilder” (The primeval history of pictures), both 1987—made these conceptual components even more evident. Here the narrative content is not expanded as in “Das Hochzeitsfest” but reduced to a minimum, and the nature of the image itself becomes the main focus. The paradox of the pictorial surface is explicitly objectified in “Die Urgeschichte,” in which Huber has combined a seascape (a painting hung on the wall) and four large wooden boxes that he has painted to look like aquariums, each one with a different underwater scene. Here he literally delves beneath the surface; what we see are pictures of a barely graspable boundary zone bewilderingly turned into an image and an object.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.