Visage Visions

Posted April 2, 2009 in Arts & Culture

Emotional distance and cool reserve filter through the paintings and art objects of James Hueter. To walk through the galleries at the Claremont Museum of Art is to be peered at, critically observed by Hueter’s avatar, his visage paintings. Ambiguous, dispassionate eyes and faces are Hueter’s obsession, and since the early 1970’s, they have been the only subjects of his work.  


Hueter is a tinkerer, perhaps by nature, perhaps by choice. Hueter’s modulation of one theme through various materials and permutations has formed the core of his practice for nearly half a century. His work, mostly hybridized objects that blur the distinctions between painting and sculpture, reflects Hueter’s concerns with craft, material, and iconography. Influences as far reaching as German figurative drawing, the minimalism of the 1960’s, and iconography borrowed from other cultures touch on the objects he has produced.  


The exhibit, arranged in chronological order, segments Hueter’s work into distinct developments beginning with work from the 1940’s and the 1950’s—Hueter earned his bachelor’s degree from Pomona College in 1948 and his MFA from the Claremont Graduate University in 1951. Four landscape paintings from 1960 reflect Hueter’s growing confidence; however, it is in the late 1960’s that Hueter significantly breaks with the styles of his mentors to create distinct work. 


A large drawing from 1960 (Mystic Head) and three paintings from 1968 and 1969 reflect the subjects and aesthetic progress that define his career. Mystic Head, a close-up of a face, is one of the earliest examples of Hueter’s continuing fascination with the human visage and our response to it. While his formal approach has evolved over the course of his career, his interest in the face has remained central to his work. At the same time that Hueter narrowed the focus of his musing, his use of materials widened. The paintings from the late 1960’s mark the beginning of Hueter’s synthesis of carpentry, sculpture and painting. It is here that Hueter abandons straightforward painting on canvas and begins to construct his work from panels, layer upon layer, with architectural forms and relief elements.  


Austere and muted–painted with thinned titanium white, grayish green and a very dilute wash of Naples yellow revealing the color of the wood beneath—the paintings from the late 1960s appear like altarpieces. They feature a lone elongated figure set against what appears to be a cruciform, as if to present a statement of human suffering.  


Although connections to various schools are suggested in his work, Hueter does not conform to any major artistic movement. He appears a figure adrift by his own choosing, eclectically positioning his work. His work from the 1970’s is clearly influenced by minimalism in its concern with material and the creation of objects of deceptive simplicity and elegance, yet Hueter handles paint in the manner of an expressionist.    


A room entirely devoted to Hueter’s drawings reveals a drawing practice that is impressive and prolific, indicating a supple mind and a broad stylistic range. There are a number of straight-on figure drawings that reveal him as a very competent draughtsman. Several drawings refine the human visage to abstract apertures appearing like renderings of light filling a void. Especially delightful are two drawings that recall Matisse and Picasso. The first is an elegant line drawing, the head and shoulders of a sitter, the second, a wonderful cubist confabulation of a reclining nude. 


While Hueter pays homage to Matisse and Picasso, his work has more in common with another modern painter. Exiting the museum through the bookstore leads past a table with catalogs of the Norton Simon Museum’s collection of Alexei Jawlensky. Staring from the cover is one of Jawlensky’s paintings of the human face. Hueter’s paintings from the 1990’s share the tight mask-like appearance of the Jawlensky paintings. To jarring effect—in a palette somewhere between the earth tones of his earlier work and the brilliant color of Jawlensky’s painting—Hueter breaks the surface of these paintings with intersecting planes of color and materials. 


In Hueter’s most recent body of work, his constructions have become increasingly intricate, creating virtual corridors with the use mirrors angled at the surface. Viewing these works at particular angles reflects the viewer’s face, while from other angles, an illusion of depth leads behind the surface of the assemblage to the icon of an eye. Whether Hueter considers the work of art a reflection of the self or an exchange between artist and audience—or perhaps both—is not clear. Perhaps the most unsettling piece in the show is an ambiguous self-portrait depicting only Hueter’s eyes, brows and nose. Whether he gazes in judgment or in search, the distance makes it hard to tell.


James Hueter: A Retrospective at Claremont Museum of Art, 536 W. First St., Claremont, (909) 621-3200,; through May 3


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