Julian Hoeber on film, intertextuality, and his latest piece, Demon Hill, a disorienting optical illusion come to life.
Following a phone conversation with LA-based artist Julian Hoeber, my almost illegible notes read: Luc Sante, obscure film that does cinema as sculpture, Kelly Nipper, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, history of Shaker furniture, Mike Kelley, The Tin Drum, recipe for brandade, What is Cinema?, watch Safe again. These ciphers were evidence of a long friendship maintained across distance. In a way, they illuminated Hoeber’s sensbility as an artist—his intense self-reflexivity, his subversive take on art history, even his attention to the representation of violence.
In Hoeber’s September exhibition at Harris Lieberman Gallery in New York, I encounter these concerns in a visceral way. Standing inside the vertiginous architecture of Demon Hill, his optical drawings have a dizzying velocity. Hoeber’s work unsettles. He offers us clues without resolution. For his exhibition with Alix Lambert at Blum & Poe this past summer he borrowed the title No Person May Carry a Fish into a Bar from an archaic LA law. The exhibition asked: what is a crime? Offering up exquisite forgeries, contemporary relics, sculptures, traces from and documents of crime scenes as so many seductive objects requiring our forensic attention, Hoeber cast the viewer in the position of witness or detective.
Jenn Joy I have a flickering after-image from your artist’s talk at RISD a few weeks ago that I want to return to. I love the way you spoke of the ambivalence of the photograph—the multiple histories present in the faces of the Boers staring at the camera—and how this document calls out our assumptions around the heroics of the rebel and the romanticism of the worker. I’m curious to hear more about how photography, specifically the fiction of the document, animates your practice. As an index, documentary photography seems to act as an unconscious side of, or subtext to, your work and your art-making process.
Julian Hoeber Photography is the art that I grew up with. My mother is a photographer and I was her subject for many years. I always have been friends with and surrounded by photographers, but I never have been any good at it myself. Like anyone else, I’ve made a few good photographs, but that’s not being a photographer. It’s been a source of frustration, in part because of having been photographed so often, that photographs are so untrustworthy. None of my mother’s pictures ever gave me much information about who I was. The way photographs confront you with something that looks like a fact, but that turns out to be much sloppier, is central to how I think about my own work.
The Boer picture you mention is filled with contradictions. It’s a wonderful image for contemporary liberals. To our eyes, it looks like Tom Joad and his compatriots after the end of The Grapes of Wrath. The Boers were an army of farmers, but their historical significance is more complex than we can see in the picture. They were put in concentration camps by the British; they altered the course of British colonial rule throughout the world, but they were also a source of inspiration to the Nazis. The photograph can’t reveal that. The conflicts of meaning inherent in photography fascinate me. However, I want the conflicts in my work to be less shrouded. I’ve been better at making videos and movies because they allow more room to open up the discussion of what’s happening in a picture.
In a lot of my sculpture and painting there is a sense that what you know and what you perceive are in conflict. I suppose the odd, nauseating feeling that came with recognizing the conflict between what I knew of myself and what I saw in hundreds of pictures my mother shot of me, has been very productive.