John Houck: To Understand Photography, You Must First Understand Photography @KANSAS

JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 works, variously framed and matted, and hung in the entry, front main gallery space, hallway, and back gallery space. (Installation shots at right.)

The works in the show come from several recent series/projects. For each series, the number of works on view is listed, followed by  detailed print information:

  • Aggregates: 7 creased archival pigment prints, framed in white and unmatted, sized 60×40 or 30×24, each unique, from 2012; 1 set of 6 double sided spreads installed on a table, dimensions variable, each unique, from 2012
  • Echelon: 8 cyanotypes on watercolor paper, framed in brown and unmatted, each sized 16×20, in editions of 3, from 2012
  • Rounding Error: 1 video loop, 0:57 seconds, in an edition of 3+1AP, from 2012

Comments/Context: The primordial soup that is the intersection of photography and digital/computer-based tools has been simmering with increasing heat for the better part of a decade now. When these technologies first arrived, we saw a few existing old-school species painfully try to adapt, only to be quickly out competed by a torrential flood of new species better suited to the new environment (Photoshop effects, Internet compositing and appropriation, Instagram filters etc.). These simple, single celled organisms have come to dominate the new digital ecosystem. But along the way, some more complicated variants of spliced photography/computer genetics have also been evolving in the background, and we are just now starting to see the evidence of their maturation.

John Houck is one example of this new breed of hybrid artist, a visual explorer who comes at photography from the perspective of a software programmer. While an actual camera is used as part of his process in some works, his vocabulary is filled with languages and indexes, encoding and rendering, glitches and error correction rather than depths of field, exposure times, and tonal zones; software is the primary input and photography is the secondary (sometimes oppositional) output. This kind of mindset is nothing short of revolutionary, as it parses visual imagery (whether abstract or figurative) into discrete systems that can be modified and manipulated at the root level. Thomas Ruff’s zycles, Tauba Auerbach’s images of static, Cory Arcangel’s code-based gradations and hacked video games, they all put algorithms at the center of the process. This opens the door to an entirely different kind of artistic logic, one that relies on symbols and mathematical relationships to ultimately define and represent images.

Houck’s Aggregates start with purpose built software designed to output every combination of certain color selections, using variations in grid size (2×2, 3×3, or 4×4) and number of color inputs to create systematic catalogs of every possible outcome. When printed on a single sheet, the tiny indexed grids act like pixels, creating lines and striations that wave across the surface of the sheet with machined precision. Houck takes these prints and folds them, adding angled lines and subtle shadows that slash across the paper with three dimensional physicality. He does this again and again, rephotographing the results at each step, the end product being a unique image of the catalog, where the folds are both images and “real” things. The works deftly mix the exacting rigor of the underlying code with the gentle gradations of shifting abstract color and the optical illusions of tactile folds. Each one is both rigidly systematic and obviously handcrafted, the opposing forces of this combination giving them vivid cerebral energy.

Houck’s Echelon series also pairs the computer-generated and the photographic. These works begin with exacting 3D renderings of cathedrals and churches (appropriated from the Internet), like those now routinely used by architecture firms around the globe. Houck takes two software models for each structure (one with perspective and one without) and layers them together into one composite image. The result is a jittering, God’s eye view of turrets and towers, arches and vaults, with extreme linear detail that offers more than one right answer. These drawings are then printed using the cyanotpye process, giving them the feel of 19th century blueprints that have far too much perfect detail. Reminiscent of the taxonomies of ferns and algae done by Anna Atkins in the 1850s, this group of works is also an index of sorts, albeit smartly merging 21st century software rendering with antique production values to upend the viewer’s expectations.

Seeing Houck’s show and subsequently investigating a number of other emerging photographers working in similar ways has convinced me that this “thinking like a software engineer” is a big white space that stands open for artistic exploration. As an approach, it applies a wholly original conceptual framework to the medium of photography, while still allowing for connections to traditional ways of seeing. I was intellectually and visually impressed by Houck’s projects; while I think the Aggregates are the meaningfully stronger of the two, I can’t remember seeing a set of underlying first show ideas that felt so promising.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows, based on the series/project (I did not inquire about prices for the spinning cursor video loop or sculptural installation)

  • Aggregates: $9000 or $4200 each, based on size
  • Echelon: $2200 each

Since this is Houck’s NY solo debut, it is obvious that his work has not yet reached the secondary markets. As such, gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point. A companion show of Houck’s work is on view at Bill Brady/KC (here).

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Read more about: John Houck, KANSAS Gallery


  1. stowell /

    Very impressive images.

  2. J. Wesley Brown /

    Is this photography or digital art?

  3. cristmae /

    Nice interior design. Great job for the designer. Thank you for sharing your wonderful job..
    Inkjet Paper

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