John Houck, A History of Graph Paper @On Stellar Rays

JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 large scale color photographs, variously framed in white, brown, and black wood, and hung against white walls in the entry area and main gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints made in 2013. Physical dimensions range from 28×21 to 47×34 (or reverse), and all of the prints are available in editions of 3+2AP. A thin self-published catalog/zine of the work (and the previous body of work, Aggregates) is available from the gallery for $20.

Comments/Context: John Houck’s new show continues his systematic investigation of recursive rephotography, but with a more personal touch. In his previous body of work Aggregates (reviewed here), Houck wrote software to compose complex grids of indexed color, which he then printed, folded and photographed in succession, creating both physical and visual creases in the striated, abstract artworks. In his newest images, he has applied the same kind of rigorous process-driven thinking to more recognizable objects, once again using repetition and layering to upend our expectations.

Family talismans and childhood objects (a box of baby shoes, a stamp collection, a beaded amulet, a set of drawing tools, and some glassware) form the basis of Houck’s iterative explorations of flatness and depth. Sheets of cardboard and graph paper provide inconclusive backdrops, and objects are piled and repiled in impossible combinations. The same box of baby shoes makes three appearances in one frame, lying on top of itself with puzzling flatness. The same is true for the box that once held the amulet; cloth wrapping spills out in multiple directions, while the boxes turn and overlap. In Houck’s desk set still life, pencils, protractors, compasses, and extra leads at first seem carelessly strewn across a graph paper blotter; a closer inspection reveals shadows that fall in competing directions and objects that lie on top of themselves. Houck’s stamp collection takes this idea to another level, with the red holding box found in three different levels, and the paper backed scraps and colored slips copied and repeated again and again.

There is a kind of structured precision in these works that makes them more than just photographic trickery. They mix the physical and the seen into a layered set of patterns, interlocked and reset into elegant forms that quietly astonish. What we’re seeing here is not a rehashing of old ideas from Conceptual Photography, but instead a new set of thought patterns derived from engineering and code writing, where the image making happens as steps in a path of logic. Each picture is a smart, self-contained loop, building on itself until it reaches the desired state of complexity.

I think it is possible to see some connection to the recent table top still lifes of Laura Letinsky in these works, with their similar mixing of perspectives, angles, planes, and shifting arrangements. But I think Houck is coming at the problem of iterative composition from a more mathematical vantage point, using methods of software design to inform his decision making. Even with objects that have personal significance, his photographs have a reasoned crispness; they follow a chain of photographic events through a filtering system, evolving along the way as the starting conditions change.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced in ratcheting editions, based on size. The smaller works start at $4000 and rise to $5000, and the larger works start at $5000 and rise to $6000. Houck’s work has not yet shown up in the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best/only option for those collectors interested in following up.

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One comment

  1. Thomas Van Loocke /

    Is it possible that ‘Baby Shoes, Never Worn’ is a reference to the story attributed to Ernest Hemingway?

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