Art and Alchemy: Sedrick Huckaby at the Blanton

“Every person is like a novel. We all have a story.” Sedrick Huckaby says. “I’ve never met a boring person.” He’s explaining how he chose the subjects of his eponymous exhibition, on view at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin May 29 – Dec. 5. The Fort Worth-based artist is known for his gestural portraits, which capture the expression and thus, the inner life, of his subjects. “I don’t know how I choose,” he says. “Sometimes it’s the idea that chooses them.”

Huckaby’s paintings are compelling because they seek to locate the humanity of their subjects and they wrestle with what (and who) is worthy of representation in art. His paintings are straightforward, but he does not shy away from complicated subjects. The Blanton show features Los Soñadores, a grouping of paintings of an immigrant family separated by frames, his renowned quilt paintings, and portraits of ex-president George W. Bush, fellow painter.

This last subject raises eyebrows amid the art world. Huckaby is the only artist to have painted Mr. Bush from life, and the Blanton show is the first time these images will be on display. “I don’t know what to expect, to be honest with you,” he says. “He’s been painting wounded soldiers…immigrants. They [critics] are dragging him through the mud.” Although any representation of the former president will inevitably have some political import, “he is forever tied to his history as a politician,” and Huckaby does not think of them on those terms. “I think it’s going to tell us more about us and the way we understand people than it says about him,” Huckaby explains. “Human beings are complex. There’s a way that people want to see things. We want to see right or wrong, but I don’t think life is that way.” Which is why the artist emphasizes the painting’s title, George Walker Bush. “I used his whole name on purpose; nobody knows him as Walker.”

The tension here is almost the opposite of some of Huckaby’s earlier works, which elevate everyday people to the status of “art” by depicting them up-close, larger than life, and in the rarefied confines of a white-walled gallery. The question is: when have someone’s actions in their position of power precluded them from participating in art? Is there some line beyond which one cedes the right to this most human of activities? As Huckaby puts it, some would say “when the ‘bad’ person does something ‘good’, it’s still ‘bad.” To encounter someone on the human level, which Huckaby’s art requires, means focusing on the individual that is in front of you. After all, that’s the only way to paint a portrait. “It’s one thing when somebody sits for you and it’s another thing on the other side of the sitting. He was always curious to watch me painting. It was helpful for him to see me.”

This collaborative spirit infuses Huckaby’s works as a painter and an educator. He speaks frequently of his students at the University of Texas at Arlington. Currently, Huckaby and lauded Dallas painter Riley Holloway (a former student) are collaborating on an exhibition for Bode Projects in Berlin. “We recognized that we deal with similar things,” Huckaby says. “We are fine-tuning it [and] moving with the bend of what we naturally do.” His students also inspired Los Soñadores, the family portrait grouping featured in the Blanton show. “Normally, a portrait like that would be named for the family. At the time when I made that piece, a lot of students were having issues with family members being deported.” Huckaby depicts them grouped, but broken into separate frames, “different people occupying different canvases”—a simple but effective visual device to refer to their separation.

Although his painting style is virtuosic, rich with carefully-observed color and lush texture, Huckaby is most intent on depicting things and people that are utterly normal. Filthy Rags of Splendor is a painting of “just this old, tattered surface,” the off-white backside of a quilt. While Huckaby has previously focused his painterly energies on the gorgeous patterns and colors of quilts, this one stands out for its minimalism. “It’s not as easy,” he says, “but if you can pull it off, the appreciation is greater.” What he is talking about is a kind of alchemy particular to art. A great artist “could make me like a dirty dishrag,” Huckaby laughs. They can “make art about anything and make it interesting.”