On a magical mystery tour with artist EK Huckaby

Huckaby’s humor casts a spell at Tanner-Hill Gallery

Artist EK Huckaby has a long white beard. He sometimes paints with Dragon’s Blood. He lives far outside of Atlanta in a century-old wooden home on Huckaby Road — property that once belonged to his great-grandfather, the coroner of Fayette County. Bamboo grows around the former farm in thick stands, as if it were trying to swallow his house. The field out back is rutted with rabbit trails, spiraling labyrinths that lead to nowhere. His scrappy dog Hinge starts barking when a car approaches on his secluded drive. Like a wizard who speaks in spells, Huckaby says he hasn’t ever “realized” his age, “I still feel like the same person I was when I was 4 years old, just the same one continuous person.”

Huckaby’s front door opens into a long hallway lined with towering bookshelves that reach to the tall ceiling. Each room that splits off from the hallway houses a distinct collection of objects and art. The living room might be mistaken for a natural history exhibition filtered through the lens of a mystic: taxidermied birds are encased in a foggy glass dome; a tall medicine cabinet-like box holds a display of eggs that have been drawn on and divided like phrenological diagrams. The walls of another room are tiled with dozens of framed family photographs, yellowed and browned portraits, and the flier for a tent revival once held by his late father, the Baptist preacher Rev. Worth Huckaby. Another room holds sculptures of human origin: a skull crowned with taxidermied snakes like a Medusa, and a diorama piled with coins and diseased teeth. “All obtained legally,” he assures. His desk is neatly stacked with Xeroxes, photographs and folders — personal archives of images he has been working through for decades.

Huckaby says he’s always been drawn to this sort of collecting. “Little boys that fill their pockets with rocks and bones and interesting things that they find. That’s just never stopped,” he says. “You could say that the objects are haunted, but that might be putting it too strongly. The subjective quality of objects, something that might be really meaningful for one person just blends into the background for the next. Not just objects, but spaces or qualities of light. Very subtle and subjective things.” He pauses to reflect on this for a second and says, “If the work can elicit some of that, then I think it has done the best that it can do. The last thing I want to do is work that everyone is reading the same way.”

Excursus, Huckaby’s latest exhibition of paintings curated by {Poem 88} (Robin Bernat, Jon Ciliberto, and Karen Tauches’ joint curatorial project) for Tanner Hill Gallery, encourages that sort of subjectivity. You might gaze at one painting, marveling at the odd edges and texture of a long white rectangle floating in surreal darkness and space, only to see that Huckaby has titled it “Guest Towel.” Another painting obviously portrays a disco ball suspended on a short line, but Huckaby calls it “Terrestrial Orrery,” orrery being the name for a mechanism that illustrates the shape and movement of the solar system. Each piece refuses intended meaning, leaving the viewer to decide how to approach the work, whether to embrace that haunting mysticism or to see it among the quotidian world of bath towels and disco balls.

That lens of interpretation projects a similarly two-fold portrait of Huckaby himself. Of the dry humor and mysticism in his current show, curator Tauches says, “Huckaby is atypical of contemporary artists. He’s in his own refined art world making exactly what he wants.” Yet, he’s enjoyed a rather ordinary, albeit successful, career. “I started painting in ‘80 or ‘82. Before that it had been off and on my entire life, but I didn’t focus on producing a body of work until that time,” he says.

He started exhibiting in group shows at the Nexus Gallery (an artist co-op that would become the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center) in 1984, and had already appeared in the pages of Art Papers and the Atlanta-Journal Constitution before getting his BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991. His work is in the collections of the High Museum, MOCA-GA, King Plow Arts Center and others. His current representation at Tanner Hill Gallery, located in the upscale White Provision complex, is certainly more chic than rural or mystic.

But Huckaby doesn’t exaggerate the mystical image. In his studio, he shows off his jar of Dragon’s Blood, letting the light dance through the thick, remarkably blood-like substance. “It’s just tree resin,” he says. He declines the “alchemist” title his current gallery is fond of using by saying simply, “I’m not that ambitious.” He points to his supplies (thin oils, fat-like resins, white powders, and odd particles stocked in row after row of mason jars) while clearly explaining how he achieves thick, uneven varnishes and uncanny qualities of light. The sculptural interests in taxonomy and human artifacts even seem understandable when he shuffles through the bookshelves for his great-grandfather’s timeworn anatomy manuals, books he’s treasured since he was a child.

However much can be explained about Huckaby, though, he carries an air of mystery, an inscrutable fog that refuses to lift. In the hallway near his front door, he explains that he added the ceiling-high bookshelves to the house himself. He says he can remember the first time he walked into a library as a young boy of just 4 or 5, and the overwhelming sensation he felt while walking among the shelves of knowledge just out of his reach. He wanted his own bookshelves to remind him of that. “All this unreachable stuff,” he says, gesturing to the highest shelf. “You’re gonna get there one day, but you just can’t reach it now.”