Longtime Atlanta artist E.K. Huckaby’s solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia is a cabinet of curiosities steeped in the artist’s fascination with the past.
Sixteenth-century cabinets of curiosities were collections of exotic objects, natural history items and other ephemera and the precursors of today’s museums. Those eclectic exhibitions find their match in Huckaby’s show “Anhydjinnic Molassicism,” a mix of puzzling objects and imagery that give viewers a sense of roaming through the jam-packed, jumble sale psychology of the artist himself.
The artist’s unique sensibility is immediately established in this solo show’s installation, with works hung in tight groupings throughout the space, enticing viewers to follow the friezelike progression of 61 works around the room. The artworks themselves — paintings, sculptures and mixed media works — are visually linked, first in the use of vintage frames — no two alike — to emphasize their truck with the past. The subjects are united, too, in telling a story of oddball esoterica and antiquated inventions in Huckaby’s paintings of balls of string, vintage baby buggies and dinosaur skeletons, English barrister’s wigs, typewriters, motion picture projectors, and shelves of antique vessels in “Neglected Reputation.” Huckaby often documents things fading from common use or already extinct. The paintings’ subject matter ranges from the weird to the lyrical, including a fat white cloud framed against a blue sky in the humorously itty-bitty painting “Calamity.” In the kitschy “Partial Anecdote” a progression of small frogs attempt to free themselves from a tall wine glass: such paintings read like a punch line to a joke whose setup we missed.
If most museum shows privilege the studious, austere production values of simple frames separated by oceans of wall space, Huckaby marches to a very different drummer, emphasizing quirky staging and even quirkier subject matter. Many of the objects are purposefully befuddling and silly, and occasionally macabre. His paintings and objects are portals to a feeling: a sense of loss or uneasiness.
Huckaby’s sculptures are even weirder, like something dredged from the highest, dust-covered shelf of a curio shop or stumbled upon in a great-grandparent’s attic. One of the most disorienting, creepy pieces in the show is “Vestigial Speciation,” a collection of bizarre objects arranged on a decrepit wooden table, each one stranger than the next. Inside a glass snow globe floats a fleshlike mass; a glass vitrine holds something black and oozing. The tableaux suggests self-taught artist Thornton Dial mixed with the purposeful shock value of a Damien Hirst.
In many ways the occasionally nonsensical tone of the show seems a joke on museums themselves as places of sanctification whose objects are deemed worthy simply by inclusion. Who’s to say what’s important and worth saving, Huckaby suggests in objects such as “The Last Breath,” a tall, skinny glass vitrine filled with moldering yellowed down and feathers.
A great many of the paintings are coated in gooey handmade layers of varnish to suggest antiquated things suspended under a layer of lacquer. But those thick, gummy layers are also a way of expressing time’s passage. The show itself is a meditation on time and how it can seem to aggregate in the physical world: in the yellowed papers, moldy linens and dust-covered furniture groaning under layers of varnish.
The show can feel a little one-note: a sustained mood piece given over to the artist’s knee-deep fascination with the past. But there is an element of wit and insight in this quirky show that sticks with you, as well as a healthy pillorying of our glorification of certain aspects of the past.