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Review: Huck's prints combine biting comment and strong lines

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 16, 2009 - The most frightening thing about Tom Huck's prints is not their depravity, their sick humor or their bombast. The most frightening thing is that in his warped characters we may see a little of ourselves.

After all, Huck's works focus on human (often Midwestern) folly, embodied in characters rooted in our present moment. His practice taps into a long tradition of printmakers who illustrate the lowest forms of human behavior in glorious, operatic strokes of schadenfreude: think Albrecht Dürer, William Hogarth and Max Beckmann.

At the Saint Louis Art Museum, Eric Lutz, assistant curator of prints, drawings and photographs, had the good sense to let Huck loose in the print collection to gather together a small show of works by these and other artists, pairing them with his own to great visual effect.

The show, "Tom Huck and the Rebellious Tradition of Printmaking," gives a nice glimpse into this fascinating niche of print history. It reveals even more about Huck the artist, who spent years looking at these prints in SLAM's collection, letting them into his own subconscious where they evidently wreaked a certain amount of productive havoc with his own ideas.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is Huck's "Transformation of Brandy Baghead" (2007-2009), a super-sized triptych of woodcuts that follows the titular heroine as she undergoes plastic surgery to become part chicken, in an effort to compete in an ice skating competition.

As fantastic as that sounds, it's not far removed from what happens on reality television every day. And it's as telling about contemporary history as Hogarth's depiction of "An Election Entertainment" of 1755, or James Ensor's wild vision of "Death Pursuing the Human Herd" of 1896, both of which nestle up comfortably alongside Huck's funhouse aesthetic.

But perhaps the closest comparison is to be made between Huck's work and Dürer's. Two works by the German master, "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" and "The Four Avenging Angels of Euphrates" (both c. 1498), fill the paper's space with explosions of clouds, swords, angels and trammeled humanity.

These works imagined the end of the world in Renaissance Germany; Huck's works might be said to do the same for ours.