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First Stop: Tom Huck at SLUMA

Highwater Hog Blues (2000), edition 16/20, from 2 Weeks in August: 14 Rural Absurdities, courtesy of Tom Huck and SLUMA

One bit of Tom Huck mythology—that he carves big, fat Xs through his printmaking blocks after the first run of prints, though he spends a year or two carving them—got zapped when the Saint Louis University Museum of Art Opened Tom Huck: Brutal Truths on February 18. “Whenever people come to my studio, I say that for show,” Huck says, slightly amused. “Because it gets this OHHHHHHHH! That’s what you’re supposed to do. But I can’t do it, because I spend so much time on the actual blocks.” This, the first big career retrospective for Huck in St. Louis, includes those printmaking blocks (only one marked with an X), as well 45 prints from the last 15 years, including outtakes from his rural satire series, 2 Weeks in August: 14 Rural Absurdities and The Bloody Bucket. There are also smaller prints made for BLAB! magazine, plus early prints from Booger Stew, a new cycle of 14 triptychs that Huck will be working on for the next decade. If you just want to go see the show, it closes April 17; admission is free, and hours are 11 a.m.–4 p.m. and Wednesday through Sunday, and by appointment. SLUMA is located at 3663 Lindell. For more info, call 314-977-2666 or go to  sluma.slu.edu. We sat down with Huck a week or so before the show opened, and talked about old work, new work, R. Crumb and Dürer sightings at Hot Topic.

St. Louis Magazine: So I wanted to start with talking about what’s in the SLUMA show…

Tom Huck: There’s a lot of stuff in the show… all the big sets that I’ve done so far—the Two Weeks in August series, The Bloody Bucket, and part of the newest series, which is really early in, Booger Stew. And then there’s this BLAB! series and a lot of other odds and ends. It’s the last 15, 16 years of my life. I haven’t seen it yet. It’s going to be very strange, I’ve never seen that before. I’m only 39, so it’s everything I’ve done since I was 23.

SLM: It’s interesting that Saint Louis University’s the first one putting up this major show.

TH: SLU was the first institution that bought from me when I moved back to St. Louis. It’s Father Biondi. Maybe he likes the subject matter, maybe it’s the printedness of it, maybe it’s that it’s black and white… I’m not sure.

SLM: Though there have been lots of big institutions outside of St. Louis that have shown your work.

TH: I’ve been in a lot of shows in other museums; as soon as someone asks me that, I totally go blank. The Whitney in New York has done stuff, the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, and on and on, those were a couple of big ones.

SLM: Though it seems there have been shows here—it’s just that it’s dribs and drabs.

TH: The Saint Louis Art Museum did something a year ago, and that was a huge thing for here, very unusual. That was new, relatively work, Brandy Baghead. That took two and a half years, so to me it was not new; to everybody else, it was. That’s the strange thing! It’s totally a different perspective.

SLM: Someone I spoke with, who has your work hanging on the wall, mentioned that one day, you should do a big show with all the print blocks with the Xs on them, just to get a sense of how intricate the blocks themselves are. And then to carve an X through that, to end the series….

TH: The thing is, the blocks are going to be in the show. Multiple blocks. But they’re not X’d. That’s a myth. Whenever people come to my studio I say that for show, because it gets that Ohhhhhh! That’s what you’re supposed to do. I can’t do it, because I spend so much time on them. I’m very attached to them.

SLM: I’m glad to hear that, actually! That’s a miniature act of artistic suicide.

TH: Yeah, I couldn’t do it. I did it to one of them, and it was the day of my divorce. And I was like Auuuugghghh! and I did it. And then I was like NOOOOOO!!! But you have to finish it, you have to finish the killing, once you’ve started (laughs.) That’s not something where you can stop halfway. And I’ve never done it again. I just don’t cancel the blocks. I don’t do a large edition of these things, and a lot of the time, I sell the blocks, and they’re out of my hands. They are what they are. I’m just honest in that way. It’s a myth that I have perpetuated myself, for speech shock, basically, when I’m speaking about my work. It gets a guaranteed “Ohhhhh,” in response. But the blocks are gonna be in the show, so people will see that, and think, “Oh! He’s a f------ liar!” It’s OK.

SLM: I wanted to ask you about Potosi.

TH: I’m from there, I grew up down there, my early work was directly about that area. Because if you’re a satirist, you pick targets. I was 23, 24 and that’s what was the most real target to me at the time. That French hillbilly hell-raisin’ sort of attitude, it’s pervasive down there. It’s in everything. So I did that whole set of prints. The Saint Louis Art Museum had a show of a few of them, gawd, like 11 or 12 years ago, maybe longer than that. And it caused all kinds of shit. The RFT did this big thing on me, and then the word got out and they all wanted to kill me down there, and how I’m making fun of them, and all this stuff. But that’s all gone away now, and my work is growing into a broader social commentary. There’s always an element of hillbilly-dom in there. I’m working on a set of prints called the Hillbilly Kama Sutra right now, seriously. It’s going to be out, it’s going to be a book—it’ll be a Blab! publication. I’m doing 15 prints for it… I’ll spend my whole weekend working on these things. I’ve started carving another one today.

SLM: So these smaller pieces, how long do you spend on those, versus the big blocks?

Oh, I can do one of those in a couple of weeks. Linoleum’s softer. This stuff just takes a long time. I just ended up working that way. It’s comforting for me. I like to know what I’m doing every day, I’m not one of these people who can just go into the studio and noodle around, and just do what’s “of the moment”—I don’t buy that. I’m a planner. And I’m a schemer, and I am dedicated to doing complex imagery that’s challenging on a narrative, technical and aesthetic level. There is a lot of planning that goes into these images—there’s probably six months of planning that goes into one image that takes me six months to do. I map it all out. There’s a lot of art history, print art history reference in all of these things. I borrow a lot from my heroes, like Dürer, Posada, and Hogarth. I borrow from those guys, because they borrowed from each other. I really see myself in a long lineage of that sort of social commentary and criticism through the graphic image in printmaking. That is a very serious part of what I do. Every day, I come into my shop, and I’m chasing ghosts, which are my heroes. I’m trying to figure out how to make prints that live up to my heroes. Every day. It’s a very serious thing.

SLM: As far as heroes, Kathe Kollwitz is one too, right? She’s fantastic, it's a shame no one knows who she is.

TH: No one knows who Dürer is, either! They may know the imagery, but they don’t know who did it. I mean, I went to Hot Topic a few weeks ago to get a studded bracelet for my daughter. And there was a girl in there, who’s like 14, and she had on an Albert Dürer T-shirt—this punk rock band had used it. I asked her, do you know who did that? And she said, “My boyfriend’s band!” And I’m like, no. I had to be the smartass. It’s cool! It’s totally rad. It just shows you how those images work. Everything in Albert Dürer, there is everything for a 13-year-old metalhead to love in his prints. Whores of Babylon, demons, knights, bloody executions… so I’ve got to figure out a way to stay 13 years old forever over here.

SLM: So you’re doing some classes at Evil Prints now.

TH: We teach some classes here, and it’s for people who can’t afford to go to school, which I get a much bigger kick out of. Also, it would be stupid for me to not try and educate the public about what I do. What’s so great about prints is that they were for everybody. They’re more affordable than big paintings, and they are made to reach the masses. That’s sort of the whole democratic thing. And a lot of people still don’t know about prints, which is kind of cool; it’s a double-edged sword. You wish that more people knew about prints, and how cool they are, because you want them to appreciate your work and maybe buy it or collect it in some way.

The bad side is… well, it’s not really a bad side. It’s more punk rock. When a whole lot of people don’t give a damn about what you do, there aren’t any rules attached to it. So what I’ve done over here, I don’t know if you’ve seen ads that we’ve done, I’ve always approached it, especially the past few years, when a new print of mine comes out, I promote it like a rock band would promote a new record. That’s what we do. I think printmaking’s cool—I’m not going for the old people, even though I get some of them. I want to market my work to young people. I market it to everybody, but it has a focus on younger people—the tattooed, pierced, metal crowd are big fans of my work. So let’s cater to them a little bit. You’re going to get people who aren’t fans of that, too. It was weird, I sold to museums before I sold to private collectors, so I already had that approval. So it’s like once you have the approval of the elders, basically on the higher end of things, I can do whatever I want as far as putting my work out there.

And it’s an old-fashioned idea, having a print shop. We’re independent. We’re not affiliated with an academic institution. Printmakers usually are. Because the universities can afford that big equipment, and all that stuff. Well, I just slowly built up my own shop over 15 years, got a piece of equipment here, got a piece of equipment there. I didn’t do it on a credit card. But you wake up one day, and you’ve got a fully functional print shop. It’s sort of like I melded a tattoo shop aesthetic with a printmaking shop in a 13-year-old-boy’s bedroom. If I am going to be here 13 hours or day or more, I want to hang out someplace cool, and I have people who come in here and work for me. They’re not paid, they’re all volunteers—it’s a halfway house for printmakers, basically, people who are coming out of school and still want to have access to a shop, and then maybe go to grad school, or maybe just make prints on their own without having to take a $10,000 class to get access to a press. My force here is a totally volunteer evil army. And they’re kids, they’re young. And it’s a very organic thing. I have people who come in and stay for a couple of years and then go. I have people who come in for six months, and then go.

SLM: There was this younger, woman printmaker on your website—

TH: That’s Julia Curran. Julia’s our shop manager. I have two people who are here now, Aaron Lovell, he’s our master printer, he’s been here forever. And Julia has been here for almost going on a year now. She’s between undergrad and grad school. She went to Truman State. My best people have come from middle-of-nowhere schools. They have. Her work is crazy. I get that kind of person. They want to come in here and be themselves. They like the dark and lurid subject matter. She’s good.

SLM: So the most recent stuff that’ll be in the show is Brandy Baghead?

TH: There is one, big newer piece that’s part of my next series, it’s called The Tommy Peepers. It’s all about the first time I saw breasts, on June 15, 1983 at 2:30 in the afternoon. She was a lifeguard in high school, and I was in fourth grade. She was diving off the diving board while I was in the shallow end, and I had my goggles on, and a snorkel. When she hit the water, her top came down for like a half second, and pulled it up really fast. And I was like—doh! It was only a half second, but that’s like an eternity if you’ve never seen a boobie. And I never got over that moment. Ever. I’m making this piece, because I have voyeuristic tendencies, you see. So The Tommy Peepers is all about my voyeuristic tendencies, and self-reflection, guilt about what I like—I’m working on it right now. This is the first scene. The center panel is finished. This is true—I found in one mother load, that’s the title of this—a box of condoms, a stack of Penthouse magazines, and my mom’s vibrator. And I didn’t really know what the vibrator was. I thought the condoms were balloons, but my mouth went numb when I tried to blow them up, because of the spermicide [laughs]. I was like, what the f---? And my mom caught me! She came up behind me and pulled my shirt and was like, “Tommy! What are you looking at!? What did you see?” And I’m like, “Words, mom! All I saw were words!” ’Cause I was looking at the Penthouse magazines. I saw a lot more than words [laughs]. So this whole thing is about my sexual stuff, and I have [Robert] Crumb to thank for that personally. Crumb, I was talking to him one time. He was looking at one of my sketchbooks. I was in France, staying with him for a couple of days—I met him through a friend of a friend of a friend, one of those things. He looked at the sketchbooks, and I was like dyin’ inside. This is like one of my gods, you know? But he’d asked to see my sketchbooks. So he was going through them, and he was making all these great faces, like he was horrified. And this was R. Crumb! Being horrified by my stuff! And I thought, oh my god, I’m doing really well. And he went through it, and he closed it, and he said: “Don’t ever let ‘em change ya. Keep doing what you’re doing.” I took that as meaning that I should be honest in my work. So I’m going to be honest about me, and so The Tommy Peepers—I’m Tom, it’s like Peeping Tom, you know, I have those issues—so there’s a direct relationship with the triptych that I’m working on now, the center panel of which is in the show. It comes from Crumb’s encouragement. He had a big part in it. The third panel is just like a Star Wars figure-Barbie Doll gang-bang. Because you try those things out! So I’m gonna show it. That’s my summer project. And then the Tommy Peepers is the next Booger Stew triptych. And then after that, I’m doing the Monkey Mountain Chronicle. Which you’ll have to stay tuned for...That’s a big production about naïve love at the county fair.
 

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