Eleven Ways of Looking at Elliott Hundley
By Jonathan AlexanderNovember 5, 2023
I’D BEEN HEARING more and more about Elliott Hundley, the Los Angeles-based artist who creates works on a grand scale but almost all composed of the smallest bits and pieces, collaged into magnitude. Hundley, who identifies as an L.A. artist, is perhaps the most L.A. artist I have yet to encounter—not necessarily in terms of subject matter, which tends to pull from the classical world and literary sources, but in terms of form. The intensity of his collage aesthetic, the density of it, brings together wildly disparate bits and pieces that nonetheless seem to cohere into their own particular beauty, much like we might think of L.A. as itself composed of a multitude of disparate bits and pieces that still somehow come together as L.A.
But however much an L.A. artist he might be, Hundley’s works, and his aesthetic practice, are much more than a synecdoche of a city. They offer a profound comment on disparate contemporary bodies looking for a harmony—or, if not exactly a harmony, then a thingness, a suchness, greater than their parts but one that still finds a way to honor those parts, in all their individuality, as precious. This tension, one of many, defines, for me, the push and pull of Hundley’s work.
An example of the artist’s work will help unpack what I mean. Walking into his exhibit Echo, hosted at Regen Projects from January 14–February 19, 2023, the first thing I felt was WOW! I was overwhelmed. Colors, shapes, images, objects—everything seemingly suspended in air, floating, leaning in, leaning away, almost moving with the ecstatic density of millions of tiny bits set spinning around an unseen center. Surely this center could not hold, but I still got sucked into the maze of colors, shapes, images, objects …
I looked more closely and noticed pins, tiny pins, like the ones that a seamstress might use to stitch together a garment, everywhere, holding in place tiny scraps, thousands upon thousands of tiny images, some bigger, some smaller, at varying lengths from the foam boards fixed to the walls, the images seeming to float, the bits and pieces thrown around but obviously carefully placed. The word that came to mind after WOW was painstaking.
I bet this is going to be a mess to clean up, I thought to myself, and it was, somehow, not at all an ungenerous thought.
I ventured further in, almost unable to focus on any one piece, seeming as they did to blend into one another, the dividing lines between one artwork and another becoming as blurred as the near indecipherability of an individual piece as I attempted to get a “fix” on it, to pin it down, as it were (ha ha). Even the sculptural works, wild and wilding concatenations of objects, more bits and pieces, seemed to emanate from the works fixed to the walls, even as those works, seemingly stuck with millions of pinned images, were coming off the walls, crawling almost with images.
A multidimensional Bosch, a 3D Garden of Earthly Delights, I thought to myself.
Also, I realized that I hadn’t really seen anything like this before. I hit up a round of galleries in Los Angeles every couple of months, checking out the work: at Vielmetter, Luis De Jesus, Hauser & Wirth, Regen Projects … I rarely bother to look ahead to see what’s on display, rather timing my arrival to coincide with my felt sense that the exhibits are changing, rotating out and rotating in. Hundley came as a complete surprise, and I was stuck again on the WOW—a response that my late-middle-aged, cynical self, still naively in love with art, doesn’t often feel.
I was feeling it now.
But what was I feeling? The first thing: This work was monumental but also fragile. But also MONUMENTAL. It was huge. But the pins, the pins made everything seem … temporary? in flux? unstable? But also MONUMENTAL. Overflowing. Dense.
Text from the exhibit description by Regen Projects, arranged as haiku:
a concentrated array
symbols, icons, forms
into this dense field
autonomous art object
logic of the whole
state of becoming
attachments and excesses
a life-size collage
I forced myself to look more closely, to stop in front of a piece and look at it, trying to focus in on some of the suspended images, held hither and yon and aloft with their pins, the millions of pins. Naked bodies, objects, more nude men, flesh, and limbs. I thought again of Bosch. I thought of the pin, the tool of collection, butterflies affixed. But that was too simple. This wasn’t just a collection. It was an effusion, an explosion. This wasn’t a garden; it was an overflowing hothouse dream that might register to someone as a nightmare, but the colors were too vibrant, too alive and in love with life to feel bad. Unlike the pins of a collector, these pins weren’t stilling further a life itself already stilled; they were setting the inanimate papers in motion, giving them their own kind of life.
I’m thinking now of my studio visit to Elliott Hundley’s home in Chinatown. I left Echo and just had to see this guy who had made this paper-and-pin virtual world. And the studio, the studio—WOW. Two stories, with art and boxes, and bits and pieces and more art and shelves and books and boxes … and Legos. LEGOS. EVERYWHERE. Stuff EVERYWHERE. As though Hundley moves from one table to another to a wall to a table to a couch to another table, drawing, painting, putting together a Lego set, painting. He lives here too. He lives here. For the past eight years, with a parrot named Echo, who at one point let out an ear-splitting shriek that sounded just like an old-school portable phone.
I didn’t want to leave, even as overwhelming as it all was. This place felt … safe. More than a workplace, a studio. It’s like an ark, not just an archive. It’s a home.
Back at Regen, I stopped before a large piece, Balcony (2021). It was huge, long. (Material description: Encaustic, paper, plastic, photographs, fabric, pins, foam, and linen on panel. Overall dimensions: 96 x 480 x 7 inches [243.8 x 1219.2 x 17.8 cm].) It’s otherwise impossible to describe: pins, pins everywhere, EVERYWHERE, and bodies, eyes, forms, pieces, parts, colors, dabs, objects.
As with all of Hundley’s work, I keep coming back to the pin, and I inevitably asked him about it. He said that the pin is “a way of thinking, not even a material,” or “a way for me to collect my thoughts.” Yes, I can see that, but the object gains clarity when I think of the pins a teenager might use to pin up posters of desired bodies, longed-for celebrities, to the walls of a bedroom. Is it the body or the specificity of the celebrity that is desired? Or the possibility of celebrity, the potential of an individual body coming to mean more, to be more, than just itself? Something very Teen Beat about the pin but Teen Beat becoming a way of knowing—not just fetish, not just fantasy, but also not dismissing fetish and fantasy either.
In this way the pin becomes method—and a particular kind of method: Hundley wants to think time through the pin. The pin, collecting, assembling, is simultaneously the desire to remember, to track, to understand—and also to lose track, to lose oneself in the fantasy of one’s objects of desire, one’s attachments, becoming plural, multitudinous, and overwhelmingly so. A self forgotten in its manifold projections, collections, memories, and possibilities.
Two more haiku, arranged from the exhibit description of Balcony, specifically:
an intimate self-portrait
a porous landscape
at once real and not
micro- and macrocosm
both queer and common
Back at the studio, Hundley talked about having studied in North Carolina, where he’s from, then RISD, then Italy and UCLA, hanging out in Rome and Provincetown, Massachusetts. He has been in Los Angeles for 21 years, loves it here, loves how he has become, as he put it, “fluent in the beauty of the place,” which he thinks of as akin to Rome. Both Los Angeles and Rome, perhaps even more than many other major cities, bear the traces of history, the layers of history, what Hundley calls the “visual layering of time.” You can see that layering in his artwork, a piece like Balcony seemingly built up from a ground but also vectoring multiple allusions so that you wonder where the real ground actually is. You won’t be able to find it, but that’s okay. We’re in the flux, in the flow.
Hundley thinks of himself, though educated in New England, as an “L.A. artist,” even as he told me he really became an artist in Italy. I can see that. The scale of the work is very L.A., even as the bits and pieces speak to an atomized form of living. There are layers here, layers of the urban and multicultural density. The proliferation of images also seem very media-aware, a televisual saturation, an eccentric world-building. Might be hard to build something new in Rome, but you can still do so here, in the City of Angels, something lofty out of the mundane, a beatifying kiss through the grime.
Back to Balcony, named after the 1956 satirical play by Jean Genet—an important reference here, one that I only understood after I visited Hundley’s studio. Genet’s play, fascinatingly filmed in 1963 by Joseph Strick, is set inside a brothel while a revolution rages outside in an unnamed country. (Is there any more perfect play to describe the 20th century?) Inside the brothel, we see fetishists playacting at being a general, a priest, a judge, while outside the actual general, priest, and judge are killed in the hostilities. The chief of police colludes with the brothel’s madam to parade around town the fetishists—in their fantasy roles as general, priest, and judge—in a ruse to maintain order, provide a comforting sense that the status quo will go on.
Hundley has worked with drama before, especially the work of Euripides and Artaud. But The Balcony seems perfect for this moment, a cultural and political moment in the West when, as never before perhaps, we are on a threshold, peering over the ledge, aware not just that the emperor has no clothes but also that our fondest dreams of ourselves have been ruses all along. We have been playacting at justice, order, mercy, righteousness. Experiencing Hundley’s work in the gallery involves an acute awareness of thresholds, moving from space to space, confronted with the overwhelming density of the world that we have built up around us and its shocking fragility, held together by glue and pushpins, always on the verge of coming apart.
And a contradiction: As with Genet’s play, the curtain is held aside for a while so we can see the inner workings, the chief of police and the brothel madam, force and desire, coming together to order our world for a moment. It’s all a lie, but how much hangs not just on the lie but also on our need for fantasy? For Genet, there was nothing more vital—or terrifying—than fantasy. Hundley might err on the side of delighting in the fantasy a bit more than Genet allows. But I cannot blame him for that. After all …
… there are so many revolutions raging outside. So many revolutions—or perhaps conflicts is the more appropriate word, since we don’t know if they will resolve into useful or even desirable changes, even if we hope for the best. And I think Hundley hopes. The gallery space, Echo, is one, at least, of hope … and delight. I stepped out of the pandemic, never quite gone, and into the exhibit. I was overwhelmed, as I said, but also … transported? Hundley himself told me that he lives, we live, in “an inflection point [he] didn’t get to choose.” But I could choose this space for a moment, an afternoon, the space of the gallery.
It is not at all clear that the topsy-turvy world of the pandemic (or the resurgence of fascism, or the realities of climate change) will result in any good change. In fact, as for the pandemic, we are becoming pretty sure that the revolution, for those of us privileged enough to sit in front of our televisions and chill during social isolation, was only streamed on Netflix. But isn’t that the lesson of The Balcony too? The revolution rages, but it’s ultimately business as usual, the police chief and the rebel holding hands while the madam watches on in the end.
Or not? I don’t want to cast Hundley as escape artist here, offering a small respite, even if that is one of the ways in which his work meets the moment. There is more than escapism here. But what?
It’s hard not to think of Hundley’s artistic antecedents, none of whom I would think of as direct inspirations but who, perhaps, collectively form the backdrop that throws the artist’s work into relief. Robert Rauschenberg? Likely, in the bringing together of details, though Hundley trusts the accumulation of smaller bits and pieces in ways that Rauschenberg perhaps couldn’t. Bruce Conner seems closer, the older artist’s flare for collage, for the sculptural, and for multimedia getting a further mix-and-match in the younger artist’s work. Cy Twombly, an Italian connection, for sure, particularly in the classical references, though Hundley seems more at home with the massive conglomeration of the minute as opposed to the grand gesture of the swoosh.
With all of these artists, Hundley shares a way of working autobiographically, without navel-gazing, that merges with a faith in both sculptural multidimensionality and the value of performative marks—a deep sense of the self as always embedded in space and time. These are artists who are invested in, as Hundley puts it about himself, “recording the madness of a moment,” wanting to inscribe time, inscribe the self in time, even if these artists also betray their desire to live forever. Hundley, who comes across as extremely youthful, preternaturally so, is nonetheless keen on marking the passage of time spatially, the works a set of accruals, embedding and layering bits of his life in his work.
Spatiality becomes temporality. And both become a kind of intimacy, connection, the all-too-human and ongoing need to be together, however fragile that being together might be, held together for a moment with pins and glue.
Ultimately, Hundley’s work seems less about beauty—there are simply too many things to look at, nothing to fix the attention, hold the gaze, no pinpoint of the rapturous. But for all the multiplicity, there is, if not beauty, then, yes, intimacy. So much intimacy, so many connections, so many possibilities as you toggle back and forth, leaning in to see a detail, leaning out to try to catch the whole.
I realized as I rocked back and forth, moving closer, stepping back, moving around, looking ahead, peering over my shoulder, trying to get a sense of what this work was about, that my body moving through this space, my body itself—just like my body moving through Hundley’s studio, swerving around objects, bits, pieces, and constellated conglomerations, my experience of my body itself twisting and turning around the accumulated fantasies and realities—that was the point. A body, every body, moving through space and time, trying to catch a glimpse of something, of anything, of everything, things and people getting left behind, then coming around again … That’s the point.
Camp? Sure. A gay aesthetic? Very likely. The nude bodies, the Teen Beat pinups, the writhing figures—all speak to a kind of hormonally driven glamor. The gallery in which I saw this exhibit, Regen Projects, is in Hollywood after all, right on Santa Monica Boulevard. But there was nothing that reduced to camp or even the queer there, even as they were part of what I saw. And neither was this just accumulation of the Whitmanian variety, containing multitudes. Rather, the pushpin and glued-together fragility of it all combined into a fantastical bulwark, a recombinating space of possibility that drew you in to check it out, that embedded your body as it moved through the layers.
And in the wake of a global pandemic, in the midst of a topsy-turvy world, feeling that body, my body, any body, feeling the body moving, with you, with each other, might be enough for the moment.
Jonathan Alexander is a special projects editor at Los Angeles Review of Books and Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine.
Featured image: Elliott Hundley. Installation view of Elliott Hundley: Echo, 2023. Regen Projects, Los Angeles. Accessed November 2, 2023
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