The shape of belief:
Formation and information in the work of Stephan Huber
An American Viewpoint
By Peter Frank
(Out of the catalogue)
For Americans, the emergence of a new installation-oriented sculptural practice in Europe is cause both for anxiety and for relief.
At a time when European artists are reclaiming a living aesthetic dynamic for their culture(s) by re-examining the artifacture of their civilization and the symbolic and historic resonances of that artifacture. American artists and art audiences feel challenged not only by European reclamation of artistic dynamism, even leadership, but by the mode and content invested in (or deduced from) the new work. The artwork, after all, is peculiarly European, redolent with associations both personal and learned; not only are we Americans hard-pressed to grasp what an object or image means in the context of European not to mention specifically German, Belgian, English, French, Dutch, Spanish, or Italian experience, but how such an object or image means what it means.
At the same time, these new “situational” sculptors and installationists rely much less on purely hermetic expression and much more on an overtly social or at least socially paradigmatic address than have previous generations of European artists. They thus provide us clear object lessons in cultural diversity and in the vagaries of translation. Even when we may not recognize the formal and historical references being made in this work, we recognize at least that the work has been formulated in order to amplify and modify these references. As a result, w may come to identify these references and know something more about the civilization referred to, even though the nuances perhaps crucial to the artist’s original intentions remain beyond our comprehension.
Because of the formal clarity of his art, and because of the ready identifiability of so much of his imagery balanced as it is between cultural specifics and contemporary universals Stephan Huber affords us especially accessible entreé into Europe’s current discourse with its own past and present. It is not that Huber’s images and configurations are less rooted in culture and history, place and custom than are those of other new European sculptors; if anything, they are more so. But they are so lucid in their exploration of specifics and universals, shared memories and shared forebodings, that they speak almost to us didactically. Yes, they operate in a realm of poetic association rather than propagandistic declamation. Yes, they are laden with symbols, not only signs. But without being Baedekers to exotic modes of perception they allow us who are foreign to the symbology, distant from the poetics, to understand more than just our distance from their language.
Like languages, the particularities of an artist’s style may lose something as the “translate” out of the cultural circumstances initially responsible for them. Further, however, like poems, physical entities invested with meanings by their makers for such have artworks become since the Renaissance (when it began to be possible to make art at the service of a point of view other than the religious) and especially since the Industrial Revolution (when much artwork began to assume a defiantly oppositional, and thus indirect and contra-propagandistic, stance) may embed presumed points of common coherence (common that is, either to local or pan-cultural discourse) with deliberately oblique significance.
What and how an artwork means can be a matter of an artist’s cultural identity, personal sensibility, or, most likely, the point (s) of interaction between the two. This is an overall lesson, especially but not only for Americans, or the new European sculpture. The growing distinction of European artistic styles from American since the 1960s has increasingly indicated this differentiation. No style, however, has stressed this differentiation more consciously than the new sculpture, laden as it is with architectural and ornamental detail, iconographically charged objects, and references to national and religious experience peculiar to the artist’s native land or region.
Stephan Huber’s work has long been about the cultural conditions of his home region of Bavaria. The seat of the German Baroque, the redoubt of the most orthodox Catholicism in Germany, and yet a modern center of industry and business with all its benefits and all its problems, all its enlightenments and all its oppressions Bavarian culture is as distinct a presence with German culture overall as, say, Texan modes and mores are within American culture as a whole. Huber utilizes, even amplifies, the cultural earmarks of contemporary Bavaria, not in order to advance any regional cultural hegemony, but to examine larger moral and philosophical issues from a position “close to home,” as it were.
Huber’s self-consciously Bavarian standpoint is a simple (if indirect) affirmation of regional style, in concert with the new surge of interest in Germany and in other European countries in indigenous dialects, regional cuisines, and local customs and habits. But Huber argues against any sort of parochial involvement with Bavarian culture, not glorifying it or engaging it in sentimental gimmickry but using it rather the way folkloristically-minded writers might use regional stories and aphorisms: to illumine general human behaviour through specific instances and models.
The Baroque mode referred to here delineates not simply the tendency associated historically with the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the 17th Century to visual opulence and ornate elaboration, but the emphasis in general on visual over verbal communication in traditional Catholic societies. One picture, believes a civilization dotted with altarpieces, is worth a thousand catechisms. Practices dying hard as they do in Europe and languages having always divided people just as religions have united them the visual elucidation of messages remains a potent tradition. The verbal tradition has only enhanced, through contrast, the potency of the visual.
Ironically, what is currently eroding the Baroque visual tradition in Europe is a factor which is conversely eroding the verbal tradition in America: television, and visual technology in general. By trebling visual stimulation while minimizing associative and symbolic content what you see on TV is (supposedly) what you get television’s “language” undermines our comprehension of all extra-visual inference. We don’t read between the scan lines. (Subliminal psychological message may be at work in commercials, but we are supposed to apprehend, much less comprehend, them consciously.)
Although it relies on visual stimulus to communicate, the Baroque tradition is ultimately concerned precisely with such extra-visual reference. The Baroque tradition is one not of physical form for physical form’s sake, but of form for story’s sake. Metaphors, allegories, and other narrative forms (or shorthand ciphers for the narrative) comprise the true fabric of the Baroque “medium.”
Allegory, metaphor, and other indirect, highly inferential forms of narration mirror because they result from one aspect of basic human consciousness. The overt expression of such inexact communicative reasoning has been increasingly minimized in our daily lives in part because our media of communication, whether engaging us passively (television) or actively (computers), operate in empirical manners.
The waning of religion as a formative factor in western civilization only adds to the superannuation of metaphorical communication. As a result, this indirect expression is now more or less entirely the province of artists. Artists have long capitalized on this state of affairs without realizing it. They and the metaphor both began to be alienated from the mainstream of western civilization at the same time (the onset of the industrial Revolution and the dawning of the Age of Reason), and the metaphorical voice has been one of progressive artists’ most powerful and constant means of expressing opposition to mainstream culture.
But only recently, it seems, have artists become aware of this fact in and of itself. Literary artists have known it for along time, but as a factor only in their own discipline, not in all the arts. Yet it pertains in all disciplines even the most abstract, like music, and the most concrete, like architecture. The arts now stand as the main repository in western civilization for metaphorical thought; and new artistic styles and sensibilities as if to underscore their oppositional roles in society, or perhaps simply to efficate them have come to emphasize this fact.
The conscious striving for metaphorical condition in the arts is in fact one of the hallmarks of what we have been calling post-Modernist culture. The new European sculpture emphasizes metaphoricality sometimes as a factor combining and contrasting with gross materiality (physical and economic), and sometimes as a factor aligning with concerted historical association.
In Stephan Huber’s most recent work there is a certain emphasis on physical materials, but not simply for a texture-for-texture’s-sake. Rather, Huber uses materials in ways which enhance their associative redolence. Hardwoods with high, glossy finishes, for instance, recall heavy, ornate furniture, as well as musical instruments. Plaster conjures the replication of Baroque filigree through casts and molds in building interiors. Aluminium represents its own use, and the use of denser metals like steel and iron, in industrial structures. (As well, it can substitute for whitish precious metals like silver). Felt evokes gaming boards, specifically pool and billiard tables a far more refined association than Joseph Beuys’ rough, intense use of felt, to be sure, but also invested with symbolism concerning basic human nature.
Finally, however sensual Huber’s engagement of materials may be, it is secondary to his formation of information. The color and feel of substances call attention less to themselves than to the associations provoked by the shapes and structures they are used to form. Without that “en-formation” we might still grasp the dialectical opposition Huber sets up between high-craft or luxury materials and coarse industrial substances; but we could grasp little else.
Huber makes sure there is much else for us to grasp. Drawing in his use of overtly narrative, symbolic images on old traditions of Catholic iconography, and on newer, but still deeply ingrained, traditions of literary narrative, Huber evokes the typically Bavarian conflation of Baroque Catholicism and industrial Modernism.
The materials reify this evocation. Huber could not possibly build his highly mechanistic sequences of struts supporting horizontal beams out of bronze, say, instead of aluminium. He could not render the surfaces of his billiard-table pieces with acrylic paint rather than felt. The sense as well as the sensation would be altered, in effect diverted away from the effects he is trying to achieve and the things he is tracing to say. (In fact, the work would take on what Huber himself identifies as a more north-German sensibility, a much rougher-hewn approach which he appreciates in the art of colleagues working in Düsseldorf (Bogomir Ecker) and Berlin (Raimund Kummer).
The superposition of votive and utilitarian formations, of refined and unrefined materials, of spiritual and earthbound metaphor, and of symbol and sign in Huber’s work most especially in these newest pieces give them an odd and troubling edge. The dualities begin to break down as the material and the spiritual reveal themselves in each other. The factory, Huber proposes in works such as “Gloria” and “Kathedrale der Arbeit” (tellingly, “Cathedrals of Work”), is a new church for the secular age. The vaulted vastness of factories and warehouses display a symmetry and grandeur virtually as thrilling as Gothic cathedral architecture. Conversely, the loving craftsmanship once reserved for the objects of religious adoration can now be applied to the most pedestrian of things, as Huber demonstrates almost parodically in “Das Floß” (“The Raft”), a pair of beautifully crafted and finished packing crates resting on an equally high-toned industrial palette.
By inference, Huber says that, like the centuries of religious faith, the Industrial Revolution has also become an “earlier era” from our vantage. As we enter the Cybernetic Age (or Age of Information, if you will) the forms and images of industry, forms and Images which have shaped our consciousness for two centuries, are becoming quaint and outmoded. For one thing, we now see through the pretense of “production”, and recognize how much of the Industrial Age’s commerce has been sustained by the creation of markets for goods rather than the other, more natural, way around. The doubled images of industrial structures which occur in several of Huber’s pieces bespeak this closed circuit between production and consumption, a circuit which exploits consumer as much as it exploits worker.
In these pieces, as Huber points out, the industrial image regards itself as if in a mirror. The figure regarding itself in a mirror is the classic symbol of Vanitas. The image of someone admiring him or herself in reflection, satisfied with what exists in the present, is shadowed by the presentiment of death. All that is earthly and temporal shall pass into dust. Even in a non-religious, scientifically ordered age the inevitability of mortality weighs on us and we are aware that the only earthly constant is change.
Huber shows the glories of the Industrial Revolution in narcissistic ecstasy at the very moment at which they pass into obsolescence- the very time at which we, for our part, begin to admire such industrial structures not for their usefulness, but for their outmoded, and thus charming, aesthetic artifacture. The wall and floor pieces resembling billiard or pool tables also refer to death symbolically, in two ways. The balls on the table are effectively frozen in motion, caught in mid-carome not simply for the pleasure of their composition (change or otherwise) but for the intimation of a sudden end to the play. The game may be interrupted, or it may be over. Who always wins, though, whether through cancellation or endgame? The Vanitas theme again reminds us who the ultimate victor must always be. We can take neither our prowess nor our winnings to the grave with us.
Huber’s occasional use of skulls and skeletons, of course, refers directly to death and earthly transmutation. A piece like “Palermo” seems much more like a genuine votive object, or even monstrance, with its encapsulated death’s-head images. The images are more than ciphers for the real thing; they are excerpted from photographs of mummies lying in the Palermo cathedral graveyard.
This highly fatalistic view of life and time is not unique to the cultures of Catholicism, but it is endemic to them. So is the hopeful promise of transcendence through faith in God (and, to that end, in the princips of the Church).
Without preaching a Gospel according to Rome, Huber reflects on the deeper, existential principles of the faith and culture in which he was raised and which still surround him; and hope as well as fatalism inflects that faith and that culture.
If hope is embodies in any device in Huber’s work, it is embodied in a whit disk, which here appears in the piece “Sunrise.” The white plaster disk bedecked with a florid bas relief suggesting the ceiling decoration that often surrounds the base of a chandelier is a cipher for the sun, the ultimate manifestion in everyday experience of cyclical surety, endurance, and salvation.
By setting the moveable sun-disk in a hard wooden bar, which also features a deep, menacing black slit, Huber could well be referring to humankind’s subversion of atomic power to its own ends. We risk annihilation by taking salvation into our own hands. Likewise, the heavy-industry Vanitas pieces could be inferring not just the death of the industry itself, but the death-dealing insults to our ecology which are its legacy.
Huber does not foreswear these interpretations, but seems them at best as appended, secondary readings. Having made some politically-oriented pieces in the past, he now mistrusts art’s ability to address quotidian problems with any kind of force; committed as he may be personally to political and social movements supportive of peace and environmental stability, Huber seeks to express broader philosophical comprehensions in his art.
Whether or not these comprehensions can be narrowed to specific programs, they stand as readings of transcendent matters which have always concerned all of humanity. Huber gives them an immediacy that en-formation with which the manner and faith peculiar to his native region endow them only to provide us with tactile entry into a world view which is ultimately applicable throughout human experience.
Words would otherwise suffice but words, as Huber learned from his culture, do not attract and convince the way pictures and objects do. Through his sculpture, then, we can know at once what Stephan Huber himself has to say and can learn now and why he, and his companions in the new generation of European sculptors, go about saying it.