London On my tour of central London exhibitions in early 2010, one small show stood out and stayed with me, although it was hard to decipher exactly what was so troubling about the 14 works—individual photographs or series—at Josh Lilley Gallery. Most of the images came from the 1870s, and had been rephotographed and enlarged to the 4-by-3-foot range. Some of the source pictures were originally hand-tinted, notably those dealing with sentimental subjects such as street urchins. One portrait, titled Ancestor (2008), appeared to have been partially wiped away, as though in a deliberate act of memory eradication. Most intriguing of all was a suite of 12 photographs of drawings that depict the night sky in successive months, with little crosshatches denoting stars and inky squiggles outlining constellations. Titled “1862” (2005), the work records sketches by one Johanna Kotz von Dobrz. But it was Michael Huey, an American artist, who selected and shot the astronomical schemas from a century and a half ago. His show, in turn, was organized for the gallery by the Vienna-based writer and curator Jasper Sharp.
Although the headless, smudged Ancestor has a horror-tinged, Francis Bacon quality, the most disturbing aspect of Huey’s exhibition was the lack of interpretative aids. Even the title, “Story Problems,” only exacerbated this gallerygoer’s anxiety. A story problem is a mathematical brainteaser framed in words, and the show’s minimally informative gallery sheet cited Gustave Flaubert’s nonsensical version:
A ship sails the ocean. It left Boston with a cargo of wool. It grosses 200 tonnes. It is bound for Le Havre. The mainmast is broken, the cabin boy is on deck, there are 12 passengers aboard, the wind is blowing East-North-East, the clock points to a quarter past three in the afternoon. It is the month of May. How old is the captain?
Huey, too, poses riddles: where do these images come from, where do they belong, and what is their power? Like Flaubert, he seems to have formulated his enquiry in a way that precludes resolution. Undeterred, I initially tried to unpack each of Huey’s pictorial puzzles without help from the artist or others, but I kept getting stuck in the show’s looping, internecine “games,” to borrow the 2009 title of one brightly hand-painted view of two suspicious-looking fellows crouched over what may be a stage “rock,” apparently gambling. Eventually, I gave in to curiosity and asked Huey and Sharp how these disparate prints might all be connected. It turns out that the erasure of the ur-Ancestor was not an artistic decision but the result of the owner’s mother, some 40 years ago, accidentally spilling a glass of white wine on a watercolor-on-ivory miniature of Baron Adolf Bachofen-Echt, a distant relation of an Austrian friend of Huey’s. Johanna Kotz von Dobrz, the teenage baroness whose beautiful astronomy homework was on display, was Huey’s partner’s great-grandmother.
Huey, in other words, is at the center of this tangled web of associations. Born in 1964 in Traverse City, Mich., he studied German at Amherst College in Massachusetts before moving to Austria (where he’s lived since 1989) to take a master’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna. From the age of 12, however, something else has been driving the artist. Researching his lineage, Huey discovered that his German-speaking roots go back to Switzerland, Germany and Austria-Hungary. After amassing a cache of 1,500 photographs as well as associated interviews and archival materials, Huey self-published a book of his genealogical findings under the title The Place of Beginning: On the Huey, Mautz, Lebzelter, McGowan Families and Their Kin (Vienna, 2001).
This familial obsession permeated Huey’s first two solo exhibitions, “Full Death” (2005) at Galerie Lisa Ruyter and “Betsy and I Killed the Bear” (2007) at Charim Galerie, both in Vienna. “Full Death” encompassed reshot photographs of 19th-century forebears and strangers, commingled with photos of historical documents and later research materials (including a receipt stamped “full death” to verify payment for a relative’s completed death certificate). “Betsy and I” was derived exclusively from candy-colored Huey-family snaps—35mm Kodachrome and Ektachrome transparencies—taken in the American Midwest in the 1940s and ’50s by his grandfather and great-grandfather. Aunt Dorothy (who, according to a press release, mysteriously uttered the show’s cryptic title phrase long ago) comes across as old-fashioned movie-star glamorous; Dad looks like a ’50s college kid in his prime; and the group portraits Swimmers (2004) and New House (2006) recall the family photographs Gerhard Richter has occasionally used as a basis for his paintings. Yet despite Huey’s claim in the show’s catalogue that his treatment of these forgotten keepsakes—reshooting, enlargement, public presentation—brought to light an “evocative archaeological find whose significance is not immediately discernible,” the project lacked any obvious significance beyond that of documenting an upper-middle-class family tree. Roland Barthes, who in Camera Lucida entwines his theory of the nature of photography with the death of his mother, taught viewers to ask: where’s the punctum, or point of interest? In other words, what’s in it for us?
Another Viennese show, this time at Blumen in 2007, broadened Huey’s purview as an artist/archivist. Titled “Ruined Album,” it featured shots of the vandalized remains of an embossed, leather-bound 19th-century volume sadly divested of its photographs. The 160 empty holders, each hand-labeled for its missing image (“le prince Auersperg,” “la princesse Gisele”), bespeak a cruel reversal of Huey’s attempts at historical preservation. (The portraits, according to a press release, were removed in recent times for more lucrative individual sale.) By exhibiting the album pages—readymade but rephotographed, with their pictures vanished—Huey not only set up an anonymous counterpart to his intensely private hoard of found materials but implicitly questioned the legitimacy of his own role as “author” of the appropriation-based works he often exhibits.
Also a volte-face was Huey’s 2007 solo show “Keep in Safe Place” at Newman Popiashvili in New York, where he first displayed his own digital photographs of various objects related to safekeeping: a deposit-box key, shredded inventory lists from his grandfather’s business, family items in storage, the sheet-shrouded furniture of a closed-up summerhouse and two wire models for chairs designed by a recently deceased friend, the Russian-born Austrian architect Anna-Lülja Praun (1906-2004). Printed as color negatives, the photographs portray these subjects as ghostly shadows of themselves.
Subsequently, with the entire field of photography at his disposal, Huey has been increasingly cagey about whether his imagery is invented, found, taken from a distant relative, altered by his camera, manipulated in a computer or doctored in the printing process. With each new project, speculation about these options—alone or in combination—comes dizzyingly into play. Next winter, a show at Newman Popiashvili will highlight the artist’s spectral color negatives of cupboard shelves loaded with heirloom glassware and china.