Atlanta artist delivers idiosyncratic show at Poem 88

EK Huckaby is a longtime Atlanta artist whose artwork may change over time, but whose obsessions don’t. He remains preoccupied with the antiquated, the esoteric, the things coated in a layer of dust in grandma’s attic, the oddball relics featured in a natural history museum.

Mix that fascination with a collector’s interest in the arcane and preserving memory in physical form, and you have something close to the spirit of this truly idiosyncratic creative’s work. And spirit is really the key here. More than a clear follow-through line or a sense of cogent narrative in this assemblage of works from 1991 to 2012 pulled together by Westside gallery Poem 88 curator Robin Bernat, Huckaby in his latest show, “The Ocean Casts the Greatest Shadow,” gives the impression that he is very good at creating an ambiance, even if this particular representation of his work can feel unfocused.

In “The Ocean Casts the Greatest Shadow,” devoted predominately to painting, but with some sculpture in the mix, Huckaby once again demonstrates his proclivities. The solo exhibition is defined by works like “Bad Day at the Flea Circus,” in which a tiny insect shindig topping a round table and seen from some distance features a storm cloud emitting bolts of lightning above.

Danger asserts itself on a lilliputian and adorable scale. Huckaby is doubly delighted by the antiquated notion of a flea circus, but also by the antiqued look of the work itself with its inky, muddied color palette and vintage-y frame. Coated in thick, gooey layers of glaze, his paintings have the look of something trapped under glass or pondered through a haze of memory.

In the delightful sculpture “Firecrackers in Glue,” Huckaby ties together two themes that define the exhibition: collecting and its handmaiden memory. A wooden support that itself looks antique-store sourced holds rows of tiny firecrackers suspended in a yellowed substance. It’s as if a wistful child pyromaniac felt the need to capture every spent explosive he’d ever ignited. Like many of the other works in the show, it is about how we attempt to make a memory more tangible by photographing or painting or collecting it.

Many of Huckaby’s paintings suggest Ripley’s Believe It Or Not souvenir photographs of the world’s biggest ball of yarn or some other curiosity. “Meet the Puffball” features the titular puffball — a huge, doughy mass like a wad of gum hanging in the painting’s center. You get the point, that Huckaby loves quirky Americana and an amble down the less-frequented byways of life, even if some of his paintings, with their calculated, purposefully amateurish technique, don’t always thrill.

Several of the images, such as the arresting “Quasi-finale” suggest a hazy, faded newspaper image sandwiched between a scrapbook’s pages. The image, in muddy shades of white and grey, features a row of flags hanging limply — like lifeless bodies — on stands. The old-fashioned bedroom in “13th Ceiling” similarly conjures up a sense of some important event captured in a photograph or painting. It looks like the kind of room where something significant happened — the act of painting the space implies its emotional importance.

As if to bolster Huckaby’s themes and reveal his inspiration, Bernat has selected framed photographs from Huckaby’s personal collection that sit next to “13th Ceiling,” including one vintage black and white image of a funeral home casket. It is the kind of memorial photograph taken by relatives to commemorate a loved one’s passing. At such moments — when he breaks away from surface irony and simple curiosities — Huckaby taps into the emotional component to objects and his work ripples with depth.

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