John Houck: Holding Environment at Marianne Boesky Gallery

John Houck, Unstable Figure, 2018. Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery

John Houck’s exhibition Holding Environment, at Marianne Boesky Gallery through December 22, is named after a theory from British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott that describes the comforting conditions in which a healthy child is raised. This isn’t the first time the artist has titled a show after Winnicott, and the relationship between art and relational psychology has long interested Houck. Yet in this heady exhibition of layered, rephotographed pictures and unique, creased prints, it takes time to parse out just how those theories inform the work.

These photographs, like the best of Houck’s output, are deceptively simple. At first glance, they look like shots of leftover piles in the studio: prints, paintings, plain rectangles of paper sit atop one another, as if thrown aside in the process of creating something else. In Yardage (2018), a painted sketch of flowers rests on scraps of matted paper and a software-generated grid of colored blocks – like overlapping windows competing for real estate on a computer screen.

The true complexity and deliberateness of the arrangements quickly become apparent, though. Each piece turns into a puzzle, asking viewers to unpack the perspectival play. This, too, is familiar territory for Houck, who often uses Cezannian tactics of distorted perspective and spatial depth to probe photography’s capacity for illusion. His trompe l’oeil trickery is particularly accomplished here; it’s not until you’re up next to the works that you’re convinced that they are, indeed, single prints and not collages.

He take this gesture to a new level, though, picking up the brush himself and painting on top of these layers. This is where the real energy of the exhibition lies, in the dialogue between painting and photography. It’s where Houck’s formal experimentation is at its most potent, and where the latent emotion of the pictures begins to come through.

Unstable Figure (2018) – the show’s most affecting work – features two painted pairs of hands each wrapped around a curling sets of handlebars. In one, Houck inverts the arm so as to confuse the direction in which the subject is facing. The show’s press release mentions that the work is a reflection on the artist’s relationship with his father, and while this reference isn’t clear without the text, a lingering sense of tension is manifest in the photograph’s unresolved orientation.

Within the context of the exhibition, the picture space acts as a kind of surrogate “holding environment,” one in which the artist can travel back in time and play in the realm that exists between these objects and the memories imbued in them. For all of Houck’s formal rigor, the show is ultimately quite intimate.