Thomas Huber, Rede in der Schule (Talk in the School), 1983, mixed media. Installation view.

Thomas Huber, Rede in der Schule (Talk in the School), 1983, mixed media. Installation view.

Thomas Huber

Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain

Thomas Huber, Rede in der Schule (Talk in the School), 1983, mixed media. Installation view.

Some years ago at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, I saw an exhibition of architectural maquettes depicting buildings and cities that in some strange, spectral sense were instantly familiar, though they didn’t approximate buildings from real life; instead, they were modeled from the architectonic worlds of literary classics. The show’s premise was unique yet not unfamiliar. The singular relationship between language and architecture might be distilled by the most common term for a poetic unit or grouping of lines: the stanza, which means “room” in Italian. This relationship can also be located in Emily Dickinson’s oeuvre, in which the domestic rooms of an unearthly house delineate every physical encounter, every psychological flight that her lines limn.

As I moved through Thomas Huber’s capacious survey at MAMCO, I thought of that affecting show (sensibly called “The Architecture of Fiction”) in Munich. The modern, monumental buildings and rooms that the Zurich-born, Berlin-based artist’s figurative paintings and objects depict also hold in their dialectical grasp both the duly recognizable and the abjectly alien: They conflate real sites, fantastic rooms, and a fictional city called Huberville. But the referential relationship to the Munich exhibition goes deeper. Huber’s committed investigation of painting—canvas and frame, subject and ground, representation and design—is matched by his investment in language, which emerges in the wittily dry texts that accompany his artworks, as well as in the discursive lectures he sometimes gives in front of them.

Accordingly, language oriented Huber’s spectator in this outsize show (mirroring his prolific overkill, it chronologically detailed three decades of work in 343 pieces), beginning with its title. With shades of the public-transportation map, “Vous êtes ici” (You Are Here) led one into groups of lucid paintings that often rely on the elliptically instructional texts positioned alongside or on the work itself. See the early installation Rede in der Schule (Talk in the School), 1983, in which a large painting of a monumental auditorium (that of the Düsseldorf art academy) stands on an easel before a grid of empty chairs. In bright washes of color and precise lineation, the painting in Rede in der Schule also features a group of chairs facing a painting on an easel—though it is turned away from us, and we cannot see what it depicts (a hall of mirrors, yes). Surrounding this work were smaller paintings and vitrines with a pedagogical tenor, as is Huber’s wont. Other installations on view included Die Post (The Post Office), 1989; Die Bank (The Bank), 1991; and Bühne 2 (Stage 2), 1999, in effect laying out a vision of society in which the language of painting and that of institutions (both governmental and cultural) comes together in quixotic, touching fashion.

The hallucinatory architectures and their patently virtual figures are at once serious and dreamy, like the child to whom one might read this spectral book of illustrations and text. Though Huber’s figures and forms are much more modernistically bulbous than drolly urbane (they somehow evoke the retro-virtual characters of Frances Stark’s video smash My Best Thing, 2011), their tone is one of wit, intelligence, deeply felt humanity, and an oceanic reserve of stories. As visionary as these works are, they do not seem otherworldly or utopian. Instead, they distinctly feel (if not appear) like a fervent exploration of our world—profanity, bureaucracy, monumentality, and weird beauty included—not a perfected version of it.

Quinn Latimer