Tom Huck got the inspiration for his work in a flood of blood. He fell in love with printmaking as an undergrad at Southern Illinois University, but by his second year of grad school at Washington University in Saint Louis he’d hit a wall. “I would go to my studio and just sit there, because I didn’t know what I wanted to say.” Huck had been making woodcuts similar to the drawings he’d done earlier, photo-realist renditions of collaged family photos, but at this point was arguing with his instructors and had been put on probation because he wasn’t producing any work. Then he spent Thanksgiving of 1994 in his hometown of Potosi, Missouri.
Huck’s grotesque woodcuts at Aron Packer, whose style is influenced both by Albrecht Durer and underground comics, have their roots in an incident then. Two younger brothers who’d been deer hunting unsuccessfully for four or five years finally killed a deer–by accident, while driving. After years of getting ribbed about their failure, they let their father believe they’d shot it. But an animal hit by a car suffers massive internal bleeding, and when their father cut it open, “It dumped a bucket of blood on him, like projectile vomiting,” Huck says. They were all shocked, and Huck laughed. “I like dark humor–Pulp Fiction was a huge influence on me. I thought, ‘My God, this is everything that means anything to me–my family history, rural humor. I’m going to draw this.” He’s been mining Potosi for his content ever since. Among the early drawings he did was one called Boar’s Head Boogie of a boxing ring for kids that local bar patrons set up, where they bet on the youngsters “beating the crap out of each other.”
Huck, who now lives in Saint Louis, describes Potosi, a town of 2,600, as virtually unchanged since the late 40s. It’s “pretty violent,” he says, “like any small town where the rednecks run everything. By its nature a small town is small-minded–a lot of bad things come out of that sort of climate. People are uneducated and bored–bar fights are a sport down there.” Huck had been hearing stories about a legendary dive–the Bloody Bucket, open from 1948 to ’51–since he was a child. These stories “left me with a strong visual in my head,” he says, and his current series of 52-inch-high woodcuts, eight of which are on view, is inspired by the stories he’s heard about the bar. Death of a Sailor depicts a patron who murdered a sailor with a pair of garden shears, “cutting him open from scrot to throat, as we call it.” In Huck’s imagined scene, the killer’s tongue thrusts out in a way that echoes his large shears, and Huck has added several details: two beefy women make out in a convertible, a man with a baseball bat grabs another by the hair, and a dog at lower left is pulling open the victim’s lips with a coat hanger. “I’m a composition freak,” Huck says. “I wanted to have a tug to the left corner.”
The intense, almost overheated clutter of detail and line in Huck’s compositions makes for stylish storytelling. Huck says he’s inspired by the “raw, crazed humanity” of printmakers such as Daumier and Jose Guadalupe Rosada, but his near chaos reminds me of the scatological comics of S. Clay Wilson, whom Huck counts as an influence, though he says R. Crumb is a bigger one–“ever since I came across a copy of Big Ass Comics at about age 12, when the hormones were raging.” In high school Huck did “the typical stuff, heavy metal album covers, women with big boobs.” When he finished his first series of Potosi prints–“2 Weeks in August,” completed in 1998–one of his grad school professors suggested showing them to museums, so Huck drove all over the United States in a $500 car, successfully cold-calling curators: the Block Museum at Northwestern acquired some, while Chicago’s Landfall Press purchased a portfolio and later published commissioned prints.
Another Bloody Bucket story was that the bar served beef brains buffet style before its square dances, and Huck had also heard of hunters “popping the tops off the heads of squirrels and eating the brains raw.” In Beef Brain Buffet, a man and woman hugging a smiling boy feed him brains out of a grinning skull with horns. The Jolly Guano Bros Ride Again, based on another story, depicts two bank robbers wearing cow pelvises as masks escaping on a bicycle. For the “broom dances” at the Bloody Bucket, “losers” who couldn’t find a dance partner were offered brooms with human features sewn on, a scene shown in Possum Promenade. Another work, Dollar Dance, comes from a scene Huck actually witnessed at a wedding reception, when a drunken bride eight months pregnant danced on the tables for spare change. “I thought, this is probably what it was like at the Bloody Bucket,” he says.
Tom Huck: The Bloody Bucket
Where: Aron Packer, 118 N. Peoria
When: Through March 19