Art in Art in Print is an irregular, ongoing series of projects in which artists create art within the journal—not a piece of art that exists somewhere else and is reproduced in the journal, but a project designed specifically for the material, technological and social context of Art in Print.
We are pleased to present Erik Hougen’s, Sciences as the eighth of these projects.
Everything is familiar. And nothing is quite right.
This is the world that comes through in Erik Hougen’s work: a place of snow-covered flatlands leaking into white skies (Hougen is originally from North Dakota), of luminous pickup trucks floating into darkness, of enormous, impassive faces. Human artifacts appear everywhere—airplanes, barns, a dun cardboard box filled with tattered paperbacks by the cowboy novelist Louis l’Amour (another North Dakota native)—but human agency is hard to find.
This unexpected imbalance is conveyed not only by the subject matter, but also through dislocations within the pictorial structure itself. Hougen works in the interstices of digital structures and manual alterations. In screenprint, he toys with the crude binary schematic of halftone screens, interlacing it with lyrical hand coloring. For his watercolors, he works from four-color separations of photographs or video stills, but applies the color in layers by hand. The resulting images have an affect in common with Richard Hamilton’s I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas (1971)—a sense of having retraced one’s steps precisely, yet ended up in a place never seen before. (Hougen acknowledges Hamilton’s influence, particularly the impact of the artist’s Swingeing London 67 screenprints, with their strategic dismembering of color, half-tone screens, lens flare and focal depth: “I remember always wanting to make art that looked exactly like that.”) In projects such as Criminal (2016) and Twenty Miles in Eight Hours (2015), Hougen grouped prints and paintings in complicated mises-en-scènes of desolate spaces and inscrutable motives.
Sciences, Hougen’s Art in Art in Print project for this issue, is a departure. The rusty breath of Americana has given way to the thinner air of the upper troposphere. In four different scenes we encounter a pair of black rocks doing things rocks never do: they hover over water, drift above the ground, soar past clouds, and hang suspended in midair. Human beings are also there, observing these rocks with apparent scientific dispassion, always from a distance, never touching.
And about that air: we can see it thicken in the distance, where trees become vague and mountains faint; we are aware of how it unifies the diverse components of the landscape, and equally how it seems to shun the two rocks, whose razor-sharp edges and crisp surfaces deny any acquaintance with intervening gases. On formal grounds alone we can recognize them as interlopers, cut and pasted into alien environments.
These relationships—how things do and do not belong to one another—are articulated by Hougen through pictorial manipulations: photographs, digitally reconfigured, broken apart by halftone screens, robbed of color, and/or recolored.
The cinematic quality implicit in Hougen’s multipart installations is overt here—it is hard not to sense an echo of the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hougen’s rocks, however, are literally more down to earth. They are tektites—small clumps of glass found at meteorite impact sites, where common terrestrial materials have been transformed by the heat of pressure of meeting an extraterrestrial visitor. Bits of rock and sand undone and remade by things falling from the sky. Hougen says he thinks of weather as a metaphor for connection—a kind of current that moves between and touches all things on earth.
It is also, he observes, “something nobody has control over.”