The Art Assassin 2

a nonfiction novel by Albert Wang, or a portrait of the artist as a young failure…

EXCLUSIVE ASSASSINATION: James Huckenpahler, Artist Represented by Hemphill Fine Arts and The Livingroom, and Instructor at The George Washington University

leave a comment »

Photograph of James Huckenpahler. Courtesy of Facebook.
James Huckenpahler: How to Fake Your Own Death, 2004, digital print, 42 inches by 56 inches, edition of 3. Courtesy of Hemphill Fine Arts.

I have been good friends with James Huckenpahler, contemporary digital painter based out of Washington D.C., for quite some time. What is most exciting about his work that appeals to both my intellectual, mathematical, and literary sensibilities is the visual stateliness and simplicity of each piece that is derived from a complex process that merges the discipline of both science and artistic design. Unlike a lot of digital work, Huckenpahler’s paintings reflect a deep interest in art history ranging from NeoGeo to hard-edge painting as well as a forward-thinking incorporation of new media techniques to create these stunning pieces. What is extraordinary is the lack of “artificiality” within these pieces which resemble landscapes from a mesmerizing science fiction novel.

Huckenpahler is quite a cool guy to hang around with too. I had a chance to spend some time this summer at the Half King Bar and Restaurant in Chelsea during my solo show at envoy enterprises. He had travelled from Washington D.C. by Amtrak to check out what my installation piece was in its half-baked execution. During a random lunch, Huckenpahler, his friend Kenseth Armstead, another young artist Jennifer Keshka, and me had lots of rather fascinating dicussions about various topics ranging from Eyebeam to the methodology and politics for art grants. His keen sense of humor combined with a sharp intuition for examining profound subjects such as postmodern literature without any hint of being highbrow. The broad interests from difficult literature such as Thomas Pynchon to esoteric Photoshop actions never seemed to be overwhelming to myself or others such as Ms. Keshka who were there at lunch for some laid-back fun. Can’t wait to hang out with him and his buddies soon.

If you have any questions about Huckenpahler’s artwork, feel free to contact his main gallery Hemphill Fine Arts at (202) 234-5601 or at Also you can contact for some of his other work at The Livingroom at (505) 228-1268 or at

So now on to this show revealing THE ART ASSASSIN’s latest details of this character “assassination”:

qi peng: To start off on a lighter note, what are some of your favorite artists, books, television shows, sports, art magazines, toys, movies, and other cultural artifacts that you wish to share with your fans of your work here? Do you have any recent galleries or exhibitions that you have seen and would to recommend to us? What things in those shows inspired your artistic eye and tastes?

James Huckenpahler: My favorite artifacts of the moment: “My Winnipeg” (2007) dir. by Guy Maddin; “CoH Plays Cosey Fanni Tutti” by CoH and Cosey Fanni Tutti (on the Raster-Noton label); Blender (open source 3D software); Twine (social-bookmarking service); Gigondas (red wine, awesome with bacon and mushrooms); “The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Recordings” by Louis Armstrong (on the Mosaic label).

DC has been a great place to be for exhibitions this spring: Maya Lin at the Corcoran, Philip Guston at NGA’s East Wing, Giorgio Morandi at The Philips Collection, Robert Frank‘s ‘Americans’ at the NGA, and Louis Bourgeois at the Hirshhorn. Also, Robin Rose has a big show up at the Katzen Center – Robin is known for painting very elegant abstractions using encaustic on hexcell panels, but this show is primarily sculpture, including a loop of 50 guitar effects pedals, and a deck doing a boardslide on a railing of razor blades.

qi peng: What is your opinion of art world journalism? Do you read periodicals such as ArtForum or ARTnews to get an up to date understanding of what goes on within the art world?

James Huckenpahler: Less lately. I used to follow ‘Index‘ and ‘Modern Painters‘. Now I stick to ‘Cabinet‘ and ‘NYer‘. I like to look at ads in ‘ArtForum’ but I’m not really into gossip or the ‘October’ agenda. That said, the last couple of books I’ve read were Bob Nickas‘ “Theft is Vision” which collects a lot of fun stuff including magazine pieces – and, Marcia Tucker‘s autobiography, “A Short Life of Trouble: Forty Years in the New York Art World.”  She was *so* hot.

qi peng: Do you have any favorite artistic blogs or websites that you enjoy looking at on a regular basis?

James Huckenpahler: I’m actually getting more info from Twitter than anywhere else. But the sites I check periodically are:

For generative art:

For hipster gossip:

For new media:

For wine:

qi peng: Do you feel that smaller, regional art markets like Santa Fe or Washington D.C. will have a chance to expand their horizons into becoming essential and vibrant art hot spots just like Los Angeles or New York City? What do you think is the current state of contemporary art within the Washington D.C. area where you are located?

James Huckenpahler: I think given the right set of conditions it could happen in DC, but not likely. A serious collector here can get on a train and have a lot more to choose from that will be guaranteed to be a better investment. And, DC is fundamentally conservative – a much safer political stance. I don’t know if there could be a Dischord-equivalent movement in the visual arts; possibly with the right collection of personalities.

qi peng: Is it difficult to sell conceptual or digital art to the public, particularly during this slow economy?

James Huckenpahler: It’s difficult selling *any* art at *any* time in DC. For that reason alone, the state of the economy is pretty much irrelevant to DC artists – we were broke to begin with. OK, in a more positive light, the housing market in DC has not felt the impact of the mortgage crisis – values are holding steady [more-or-less], lots of shiny new lofts still going up, with the attendant need for wall covering.

qi peng: How do you feel that the current economic recession impacted the contemporary art market and way that it functions in the larger national economy?

James Huckenpahler: Certainly, the art market isn’t immune to the recession, but DC hasn’t had galleries closing like NY… yet. We’ll see.

qi peng: Do you feel that artists will be pursuing more personal and intimate projects than the overly commercial work, typically geared for the art fairs, during the upcoming years?

James Huckenpahler: Historically, artists in DC have had to survive independently of the art market. The music scene here has always [at least in my circles, in my lifetime] leaned towards D.I.Y. Visual arts are pretty much the same.

qi peng: How do you think that galleries and non-profits will be coping with the dramatic shifts within the political and corporate culture, particularly in America?

James Huckenpahler: Galleries are really at the mercy of the economy; non-profits more so, though we’ll see how the new administration supports the NEA.

qi peng: Do you have any thoughts about the current state of the stock market and its concomitant corruption?

James Huckenpahler: Well… the concomitant corruption funded a lot of art [as much bad as good.]

qi peng: Any thoughts on the Obama administration in relation to your viewpoint on history, social identity, and the arts scene?

James Huckenpahler: It’s great to have a president that is roughly of my generation, and great that the GOP wasn’t able to swindle the election like 2000 – my faith in democracy has been somewhat restored. If the recovery plan works, then the arts will benefit.

qi peng: Are there any restaurants or hangouts such as bookstores around the Washington D.C. area or anywhere else that you wish to recommend us? What are the qualities that you enjoy best about the places that you have chosen?

James Huckenpahler: Politics and Prose is the best place to get books in DC, though their art selection is pretty thin. It’s a booklovers’ haven – comfortable, and a decent coffee shop in the basement with free wifi. I run into Tyler Green there all the time. I can’t tell if he blogging or playing online poker, though. DC used to have a wonderful arts bookstore, Franz Bader Books, but they closed last year. The owner would call me when anything on Morandi or Keifer would come in. Or she would call my mom if it was close to Chrismas. Kramerbooks down at Dupont Circle is also a regular hangout of mine.

Black Cat is the closest thing we have to the old 9:30 club [the new 9:30 is nice, but not the same funky vibe, or funky smell.] I’m missing St. Vincent playing there tonight – bummer. I hear Rock and Roll Hotel is groovy, but I haven’t been over there yet.

Comet Ping Pong is a couple of doors away from P&P – the have the best pizza in DC, ping pong tables, and bands pretty regularly. It’s a comfy neighborhood hangout. Until about 9PM it’s families with little kids. After that, the hipsters arrive. They’ve got Allagash on tap.

qi peng: As a graduate of the Corcoran College of Art and Design, what were those school years like?

James Huckenpahler: Lots of juvenile delinquency. I was a bad student. Lots of shouting matches with the faculty. I run into a lot of them still, and they are surprisingly nice to me.

qi peng: How was life in the studio like back then?

James Huckenpahler: Comic books, throwing knives and beer. Painting with peanut butter and Listerine.

qi peng: Did you have any influential professors or students during that time and what was their impact on you and your work?

James Huckenpahler: Yes. William Newman and William Willis were both painters, but at opposite ends of the spectrum. Both were really supportive of me, feeding me with ideas and info in large doses – Newman on technique, Willis on process. Kendall Buster was also really instrumental, even though I’m not a sculptor – she had me reading all kinds of stuff: Robbe-Grillet, Lawrence Weschler, and so on, and she encouraged me to participate in lots of exhibitions.

Also Doug Lang and Bernard Welt – they are both poets here in DC, and on the academic faculty at the Corcoran – really encouraged my interest in language. I still talk to all of these guys pretty regularly. I see the poets at readings all the time.

A lot of other folks from the Corcoran scene have been really important in my creative life: Kenseth Armstead and Colby Caldwell were classmates of mine, Jason Gubbiotti who graduated much later, Robin Rose who I met through Kendall, Ken Ashton, Chan Chao, Paul Roth. I have conversations with these folks weekly, if not daily, always imagining what the next piece might be.

qi peng: How did you develop your current style of digital painting that reflects a combination of science fiction-inspired design, mathematical forms particularly topology, and photographic painting?

James Huckenpahler: I was trained as a painter; I worked in the computer lab as a student but was not really interested in using them for art. I didn’t really start using computers [outside of commercial design work] until the mid-90’s. So at the core, I’m a painter… really a draftsman, because drawing is like breathing for me: if I stop, I feel like I’m suffocating.

In the mid-90’s I started to get some ideas for procedural pieces on photoshop – I get especially interested in creating scripts that made images that looked a little like skin. Towards the end of that body of work the scripts were pretty elaborate – several hundred steps that would take a couple of hours to build an image. One doesn’t *need* computers to work that way, but it just comes naturally that way. Some media are perfect for some themes – like Degaspastels, probably the most perfect marriage of image, content and medium that I can think of. Likewise, some of my themes, like emergence and stewardship, are well-served by digital media.

qi peng: Do you have any favorite hobbies which you enjoy in your spare time? How do these activities inform the studio work that you pursue? With your personal interests, is your painting reflective of those hobbies you engage in?

James Huckenpahler: I don’t have many hobbies – listening to music, reading books, playing video games. I definitely gravitate to stuff that informs the work: reading Dante right now and thing about using the structure of Divine Comedy as a point of departure for my next big project. Listening to Duke Ellington a lot because the next project is going to incorporate an element of DC history [Ellington is from DC.] And listening to Rites of Spring for the same reasons. I’ve started watching a lecture series on game theory so I’ve got a better grounding in the topic as I start thinking about the rule sets that will generate the next bunch of images.

qi peng: What is the underlying process from start to finish as you plan each piece from preliminary design to finished product? How do you determine which materials to use for the final version of the artwork? Considering that you consider yourself to be a painter using technology, how does your work fit into the context of new media art and video art?

James Huckenpahler: Everything I do starts from a question, an experiment that I want to try out. If I can do ‘X’ and I can do ‘Y’, what happens if I do ‘(X+Y)’? So in recent years, I’ll come up with some crazy scheme, one where I can figure out the end result, and start generating images. Afterwords, the painter [the aesthete] in me goes back and edits the images or reworks the process until I get something that feels right. Maybe it’s as simple as taste, but I think there more to final cut – I think there’s is a moment of ‘recognition’ where a piece is new and strange and familiar at the same time.

qi peng: You are represented by a commercial space called Hemphill Fine Arts. What has the experience been like to work with a gallery which you have a solid relationship with? What are the major challenges that you face as an experimental, cutting-edge artist in the gallery system?

James Huckenpahler: Any gallery has to make sales to keep the doors open, and right now my work has a limited market. However, Hemphill has a history of committing itself to its artists over the haul. Bottom line for me is that I have great, rewarding conversations with everyone at the gallery, and I feel really supported.

qi peng: Do you have any advice for young emerging artists from BFA or MFA programs who are graduating from their program? Any pitfalls for them to avoid as they search for a way to enter the formal gallery system or to exhibit in non-profit or alternative spaces or museums? What have been your joys and hardships in dealing with the non-profit sector? Also what was the experience like to exhibit at The 48th Biennial over at The Corcoran Gallery of Art?

James Huckenpahler: 1. Collaborate with friends

2. Put together DIY spaces with friends

3. Get involved with local non-profs. If there isn’t one in your hood, start one. Do it yourself, don’t wait for someone to hand it to you. Don’t find the scene, make the scene.

4. Research galleries, go to openings, figure out which galleries *need* your work. Find a gallery with a gap in their program that you can fill. Cold-calls don’t work for everyone – and for-cryin’-out-loud don’t take your conceptual installation portfolio to a duck-painter gallery. Research, research, research.

qi peng: Your work demonstrates a high level of cultural allusions and literary references, particularly to system novels by Thomas Pynchon and possibly Don DeLillo. What interests your mind with the engineering aspects of fiction and non-fiction? Do you enjoy science fiction and if so, how does it relate to your artwork? What does the term “mindless pleasures” refer to and how does your series reflect that concept?

James Huckenpahler: I grew up reading a lot of sci-fi, but I’m less interested in it than I was; now that imagery is more like ‘mythology‘ in the sense that they are almost archetypes – it’s not really technology or the future that interests me so much. To the extent that I’m interested in technology at all, it’s really the big picture of technology over time – not just futuristic paraphernalia. For example, I want my next body of work to embrace three centuries of technology: engraving from the 19th, photography from the 20th, and computers from the 21st centuries.

The last body of work was [even though many people thought it was very ‘cold’] probably my most personal work: I’d just gone through some big life changes and had passed through a personal crossroads. In the back of my mind was Pynchon’s anti-hero Tyrone Slothrop, who at the climax of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ disintegrates at the crossroads. A working title for ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ was ‘Mindless Pleasures’ which I liked; it was also sort of a snarky jab at folks who think abstraction is mindless.

qi peng: For the lay reader, would you mind explaining the current 3-D modeling software and how you generate the artwork using it? What the philosophical implications with digital painting and the way that a mathematics-based landscape is formed? How do you choose the color scheme for each piece?

James Huckenpahler: Let me gat back to you on the software stuff – really hard to boil down since I do so many different things – I’ve have some prefab text at home, not on this machine –  will dig it up when I get back in a couple of days and rewrite as necessary.

Color? Gut feeling, mood, something I saw. I keep lots of clippings on the wall of things that, for whatever reason struck my fancy – sometimes the colors come from there. Lately I’ve been feeling black-and-white.

qi peng: The pieces reflect a negative imprint of an extant object. What is the underlying epistemology and other philosophical constructs that you aim to explore?

James Huckenpahler: You’re talking about the ‘Mindless Pleasures’ pieces; those were all made from a single model. That was a happy accident. The Original model was actually based on an Ultraman action figure [my personal, futuristic, mythological hero archetype!] but at one point in the process of building the model I inverted the positive and negative volumes. I ended up with this negative ‘crossroads’ in a lump of grey goo – way more interesting than the source model, and… suggestive of the anti-hero [me!]

qi peng: Sometimes for your pieces you add film grain or blur details out. What do these finishing touches suggest for the viewer and the way he or she interprets the final outcome?

James Huckenpahler: Sometimes the images are too squeaky-clean, too explicit. I need to take them out back and rough them up a little. If an image is too nice you gotta get out the brass knuckles and pick a fight. It also speaks to my interest in the history of image-making – sometimes I want to remember snapshots from the ’60s. Sometimes I want to remember Gustave Doré‘s engravings.

qi peng: How do you add the human element within the piece itself? Considering that lots of people stereotype digital art as the result of some type of flawless process, do you introduce certain elements that are humorous or unexpected into the final mix?

James Huckenpahler: See above.

qi peng: How are “human-ness” and technology reconciled? How do you place your paintings into the context of art history?

James Huckenpahler: I don’t see that a reconciliation is necessary. Making tools is part of being human. Grappling with the changes that unfold with the introduction of new tools is also human.

qi peng: Do you have any favorite cuisine or dishes that you enjoy? Considering that food is essential for the artistic soul, what things do you look for within a daily meal?

James Huckenpahler: Parmesan cheese is *absolute proof* that there is a god *and* s/he loves humans.

qi peng: What are some of your future dreams and upcoming exhibitions that you will be undergoing? What are some potential challenges or past hardships that you have overcome and that you are proud of? Do you have cool things, subjects, or themes that you would love to explore within your digital works?

James Huckenpahler: I’m convinced that Washington, DC is the Winnepeg of America, and I want to be its Guy Maddin.

But, Philip Guston is who I’m really aiming for. His late work thoroughly embraced and expanded upon his previous work: it had all the funky verve of the style of cartooning he leaned as a kid, he social commentary of his WPA work, the complete mastery of paint and volume of his AbEx work, and… something that transcended all of that. That’s what I want to accomplish.

qi peng: Do you have anything else which you would like to share with your readers and fans of your digital paintings, projects, and forthcoming exhibitions here?

James Huckenpahler: That covers the waterfront. – J

For more gossip or dishing me the art scoop: E-mail me at

Written by qi peng

December 13, 2009 at 10:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: