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Sun Shower

In 2012, the art gallery at the California State University at Channel Islands organized a solo exhibition featuring the recent paintings of Jim Huber (American, born 1945). In this extraordinary debut, the paintings made a smashing impression. A handsome body of work structured around one artist’s love of core elements of painting.

Huber paintings are meticulously crafted over a pair of initially imperceptible matrices. The first and most apparent is the vertical banding. Huber does this very well. The viewer is relaxed by the engaging color and casual ease that is a hallmark of the work. Yet, buried within the obvious is an unanticipated and unforeseen complexity. The color bands are far more than passages of pigment across a surface.

The Wichita Art Museum possesses a remarkable painting by Mary Cassatt (American, 1844 – 1926) entitled Mother and Child (c. 1890) depicting a seated female figure comforting a child. It is, a simple scene, stirringly executed. The painting is so beautifully made one can hardly imagine it to be rich with innovations, even so, it is. One of which applies to appreciation of the work of Jim Huber. A key element of Cassatt’s composition is the abstracted panel of brushed verticals against which the figures rest. Was this a table drape? Extremely subtle tonal variety repeats throughout the section of canvas from side to side. The bars of color are close-keyed and alternately valued — middle-tone, light middle-tone, middle-tone and light middle tone, repeating to and fro’ across the composition — with the periodic counterpoint of a strike of a dark value / dark hue or a stab of a bright white. Then, with flourishes here and there, Cassatt’s whim and desire, a maddening scherzo of brush volleys obliterate nearly all semblance of colored pattern.

In Paris, in 1890, things Japanese remained all the rage (the Japanese Pavilion in Paris World’s Fair of 1878 had attracted huge crowds).The Ukiyo-e print was a passion for Cassatt. Her enthusiasm was reinforced by a robust exhibition of Japanese block prints under way at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Soon, Cassatt (who had been experimenting with etching) made gorgeous prints of her own. Her etchings, using drypoint and aquatint, were chockablock full of tonality, color and pattern. Printing, thinking about printmaking in general, had transformed the devices and protocol Cassatt followed when constructing a painting.

Huber grasps the vision and mastery of Cassatt’s mechanics, and, he has made an equally brave leap. Surprisingly, the artist adopts and drags Cassatt’s persuasion further, adding to this mix another, deeper tier. Within Huber paintings there appears a second level of complexity. An underlayment of rich coloration unites the whole package. Buried just below the Huber surface is the alternative picture plane. Overlain, over-lapping, dislodged and out-of-register (like Japanese woodblock prints). Perceptible if visualized as a layered matrix, or, imagine stacked flats of window screening, or chicken wire, wherein the vacant interstices are color filled pockets. With noteworthy efficiency and precision Huber designs and incorporates a substrate of hot and cool zones – the upper left quadrant begins hot, alternates to cool tone and repeats throughout the section. In each direction – up, down, across – within every painting, and, over the entire group these tonal shifts occur.

Forty-four years ago, in Kyoto, of all places, I had the pleasure of seeing a portfolio of paintings and prints by the legendary British artist Bridget Riley (British, born 1931). The works were comprised of vertical bands of painted lines of uniform width. The line width of these vertical passages might, at one point, inflate, arc, deflate and then recover to the vertical course. With each successive line repeating this process at roughly the same location, Riley created periodic hot blisters and demiluns about the picture plane. As an Op (Optical) artist, rightly so, Riley enjoyed immense appeal.

Around then, I met Jim Huber, and immediately recognized that he too possessed an innate curiosity for, and knowledge of, the inner workings of painting. He grasped color theories, the structural codex in Op Art, Cubism, Orphism, Russian Constructivists and the teachings of Hans Hofmann. Huber, a Viet-nam veteran, was already familiar with the arts and culture of Asia. At that time, his paintings had manifested deeply held beliefs. Huber, like Riley, was examining core ingredients of painting and nurturing unique personal insight.

Huber knew, knew of, or followed artists who pursued the challenges and iterations of modern painting composition. For example, in Europe, Jesus Rafael Soto (Venezuelan, 1923 – 2005); in New York, Robert Goodnough (American, 1917 – 2010); Sol LeWitt (American, 1928 – 2007) and Agnes Martin (Canadian / American, 1912 – 2004); in Los Angeles John McLaughlin, (American, 1898 – 1976), Helene Lundeberg, (American, 1908 – 1999), Lorser Feitelson, (American, 1898 – 1978) and Karl Benjamin (American, 1925 – 2012). Each of these masters, like Cassatt and Riley, experimented with complex or simplified arrangements of bands, ribbons or lines.

Huber produced a variant. Early in his work, he made paintings and drawings on canvas and watercolor paper comprised of precisely delineated clusters of vertical lines which appear to oscillate. The works are quite stunning. I remember one in particular, quite large, paint and diatomaceous earth on cotton doek with elegant flurries of lines and form scribed into the surface. (As a personal sidebar, in 1975, Huber gifted to me a handsome set of these originals in miniature. After enjoying the small panes for many years, the drawings eventually became part of my dossier on Jim Huber art, now archived in William Hemmerdinger Papers at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles).

Taken superficially, Huber works, might be misconstrued to be stripe paintings. Properly considered, it is easy to see that these are not paintings about stripes. Jim Huber paintings are brilliant studies in color as form. The vertical bands are the emulsion used to deliver the true agent: color. Color volumes are formed, dissolved, rebuilt, warming, cooling. Color. The paintings are the beautifully articulated result of four decades of a near single-minded and smart inquiry into one of the most mysterious dominions of modernist painting.

Two images selected for this post illustrate the scope of his exploration: most of the portfolio is similar in sensibility to Sun Flowers while the anomalous Daniel’s Dilemma opens the possibility of the Huber band-forms morphing into a surrealiste bouquet.

Huber paintings have been exhibited at Robert Graves Gallery, Wenatchee, Washington; Gallery One, Ellensburg, Washington, Icicle Arts, Leavenworth, Washington; many venue around the Pacific Rim. The artist studied at the University of California and earned an MFA in painting at Claremont Graduate University. The seventy-one year old artist now lives and paints in the beautiful Wenatchee Valley area of Washington.

Appraisals and opinions regarding modernist painting, sculpture, ceramics, drawing, and printmaking may be obtained by contacting william.hemmerdinger@gmail.com. Inquiries regarding art registry, purchase, sale or commercial galleries representing Jim Huber art should be directed to jimhuberart.com (East Wenatchee, Washington).

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Daniel’s Dilemma