Elliott Hundley: Echo
January 14 through February 19, 2023
By GARY BREWER, March 2023
“I abandon myself to the fever of dreams, in search of new laws.”— Antonin Artaud
“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are barely able to endure.”— Rainer Maria Rilke
The twenty-year survey of Elliott Hundley’s career at Regen Projects titled Echo was an intoxicating, voluptuous visual feast. His obsessive works filled the gallery spaces, creating an immersive installation that enraptured the mind and the senses.
Literary references to Euripides, Rilke, Artaud, and Genet are a metaphoric structure upon which he often creates. The stories and the characters in them are not only a method to give subjective shape to his work, but they are also reflections of himself, archetypal actors from our collective unconscious who have helped Hundley create his sense of identity:
"Life is extremely complex. There are so many unanswerable questions. The obsessive collages of images in my art are an effort to feel at ease with the anxiety of existence. The tragedies of Euripides express our experience and terror of the unknown. Through catharsis, his plays are a psychological method to find some kind of peace within this reality. In my work, I am building a nest made with myriad fragments from narratives that convey the incomprehensibility of life. It is a form of catharsis and has been a way to build my identity through these stories."
His studio is vast: a 1907 industrial brick warehouse with enormous wooden beams, weathered sliding doors, and a huge freight elevator; the brick walls exposed through layers of paint give his space an aura of history, a sublime patina of time. The building has passed through many hands and businesses. Hundley found it in disrepair, the floors collapsed and infested with rats. Nevertheless, he fell in love with this dilapidated shipwreck and resurrected it, creating a space large enough to house his dreams. It is Hundley’s own Merzbau; he refers to it as his ark. The building itself is intertwined with the art that he creates within its walls. It is a nest and an inspiration. The record of the past embedded in the studio’s worn surfaces exudes a reassuring warmth.
The warehouse district where he lives is changing. There are plans to build a station for a sky gondola in the lot next door to carry people to Dodger Stadium. He can see the trains passing by as they leave Union Station, and just up the street in Chinatown is the light rail station playfully adorned with architectural and ornamental elements reflecting Asian culture. Hundley spoke about these changes:
"I love having a community. I have two spaces in my studio where I give friends and artists whose work I admire exhibitions. Right outside my window I can see downtown Los Angeles. I hear the trains as they are passing by and I can watch the firework displays above Dodger Stadium. I love the thought of a gondola carrying people up to the ballpark as they look out over Chinatown below. It is like a child’s dream. My neighborhood is becoming a perfect Legoland world."
The exhibition was a stunning tour de force of planning and installation. I had assumed the work went into the space with a general plan, combined with an organic spilling forth from one area to another. But there was a scale model of the galleries at Regen Projects in Hundley’s studio with maquettes of every piece in the show thoughtfully placed.
An ecstatic Dionysian energy pervaded the show. The experience was a sensorial overload mixed with awe, blurring the boundaries between image, object, and installation. Many of the artist’s works are an accumulation of hundreds of small cutout photographs and collage elements pinned to the surface. From afar they engage our vision as two-dimensional works, but up close one can see that they are physically occupying a shallow space with a galaxy of images floating just inches off the surface of the canvas or panel. His collections of subject matters are not unlike insects pinned in a specimen case. Indeed, one might say that in his art there is an element of collecting and categorizing experiences, memories, and stories. His works are curiosity cabinets of the human psyche, autobiographical and emotionally cathartic; myths and stories exhibited as representations of states of consciousness. His no-holds-barred approach of “more is more” is an assault against a minimalist aesthetic of economy and reductivism.
Hundley spoke about the subjective blur that exists between things. “In the installation, I used thousands of pins with small pieces of colored shapes pinned to the wall to create transitions linking one artwork to the next. I wanted to blur the physical boundaries and suggest that my works flow from one into another. The physical edges do not contain the content of my work.”
He uses excess as a representation of the impossibility of completely understanding anything. Our ability to comprehend our experiences is limited by our five senses and our consciousness. Insects, birds, and amphibians can see chromatic wavelengths invisible to us and can sense changes in the earth’s magnetic fields to help them navigate. We can comprehend only a limited sensory universe. Our understanding of one another is a mystery unto itself. “We can never really know another person,” Hundley observed. “People we once thought we knew change and become someone else.”
The Plague is a monumental piece that subtly suggests Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. There are shapes that echo elements of Bosch’s meditation on divinity, life, death, and damnation as well as a sense of a foreground, middle ground, and background that implies a landscape. The myriad images coalesce into a Grand Guignol of phantasmagoria. Images of soldiers carrying the wounded from the Vietnam War; mouths and lips, fruits and other food products cut from vintage ads; surgeons operating and women dancing: a riot of life in its infinite complexity fills the surface. At the upper right is a painted Japanese theater mask. Above that is an image of a kitchen sink with gestural brushstrokes surrounding and dancing around the chrome drain, giving the impression of a monstrous Cyclops peering out from the tumult.
The title of The Plague refers to Antonin Artaud’s play There Is No More Firmament. A passage from the text mirrors the actions taking place in the artwork. “A woman waves her arms, a man falls, another with his nose in the air as if scenting; a dwarf, now downstage, runs about light as a feather. A hysterical woman wails, makes as if to undress. A child cries with huge, terrible sobs.” Excess is an aesthetic and philosophical choice. It is a means to capture the silent scream of life in an imagist torrent of emotion and spectacle.
The gallery became a theater of his imagination. The sculptures, paintings, and collages combined with objects from his collection of artifacts shared a subjective resonance. Hundley is an intellectually curious omnivore, and his instinct guides him into the shadowlands at the edge of knowing. He sees in the tragedies of Euripides an expression of the terror that speaks to us today about the same unease we feel from the darkness that surrounds us.
How do we make sense of the world? We are all translators taking in information through our perceptions, organizing it consistent with our beliefs. The translation of words and ideas into images is central to Hundley’s art. Six months ago he adopted a twenty-year-old parrot named Echo. As the show approached, they were just getting to know each other—the interspecies translation of language that was unfolding between them inspired the title of the exhibition. In Hundley’s efforts to commune with his parrot, the blur between animal and human consciousness added another element to his poetic inquiry into the unknown.
The artworks are beautiful and intoxicating. They are ornate amalgamations of “everything everywhere all at once.” His approach is primordial and instinctive. With mastery and abandon he releases into his work an avalanche of information to a symphonic crescendo. This collective stream of consciousness flows from antiquity to the present, and these sibylline spectacles are a key to unlocking the doors of the imagination. WM