Friday, March 12, 2010

The Last Magazine/Scott Hug


Text by Aimee Walleston

Photography by Adrian Gaut

In Robert Musil’s fin-de-siècle novel The Man Without

Qualities, the protagonist, Ulrich, is a mathematician

whose belief in evaluating human existence

through quantitative information psychically predicts

our culture’s current dependence on statistical data

to define our own needs, interests, and desires.

Musil wrote, “Every answer [Ulrich] gives is only a

partial answer, every feeling only an opinion, and

he never cares what something is, only ‘how’ it is.”

With the current primacy of technology and science

over sociology, philosophy, and non-pharmaceutical

psychology, we have, in essence, become a society

without qualities. Every nuance of individual human

existence—most particularly human happiness—is

calculated as a zero-sum game: one looks at where

one falls on the chart to assess whether one is successful,

healthy, interesting, wealthy, ad infinitum.

This is just the type of zombie groupthink that

begs to be poked at with a large stick, since we are

in essence letting non-human methods of cognition

stand in for honest thought, emotion, and passion.

Enter New York–based artist Scott Hug, carrying said

stick. Raised all-American in rural Missouri, Hug was

trained in painting as a boy by a man he describes

as “Bob Ross–esque,” as well as a traditional Tole

painter. Hug’s artistic proclivities were sweetly

nurtured by his family, and he studied at the Art Institute

of Chicago and worked as a printmaker in Paris

before making his way to New York, where he earned

a master’s degree from Pratt. Here, Hug has, since

the early ’00s, been a man-about-town, producing the

inventive and much-adored magazine K48 and gaining

acclaim in late 2002 for Teenage Rebel: The Bedroom

Show, a lived-in installation the artist created at

John Connelly Presents before taking it to agnès b.’s

Galerie du jour in Paris. He has also curated several

well-received shows, the most recent being a group

show, “Out of Order,” which dealt with themes of disarrangement,

mysticism, and internal logic.

In recent years, Hug has produced a body of work

that repurposes pop culture visuals and texts, inviting

his viewers to look a little more closely at the celebrity-

driven news that consumes print and Internet

media. His Page Six Heads, shown in 2006, are a sly

revamping of Andy Warhol’s well-known celebrity silk

screens. In Hug’s cheeky images, monochrome popcolor

canvases are screened with halftone images of

celebrities and their original accompanying headlines,

all culled from the notorious Post gossip column.

Ripped from their traditional home, the pairings of

words and images (a photo of Jake Gyllenhaal is

matched with the headline “Tight scrutiny”) strike one

as arbitrary and strange. The pieces work together

to push lovers of these mindless gossip columns

to examine their love of celebrity with a little more

conscious thought. What are we doing when we gaze

endlessly at these stars, so much so that images and

information about our media darlings is often more

important than actual news events? Whose life are we

really trying to live when we seek to look at people we

don’t know rather than those we love and hold dear?

In his latest body of work, Million Dollar Spit in the

Ocean, Hug deviates from his earlier focus on celebrity

to take on the formal elegance of the pie chart.

On sheets torn from vintage National Geographic

magazines, the artist paints one single chart, in hues

that offset the found image. The statistics each one

depicts are unclear, bringing to mind an important

ideological query: do statistics even matter? And

what do statistics really tell us? Quantitative analysts

are becoming aesthetic masterminds, and we are

so under their sway that we can barely do anything

autonomous. At times, it seems as though this type

of information is gathered with such fiat and force—

particularly when it relates to individual experience—

solely to make those who don’t fit comfortably in the

biggest slice of the pie feel even more out of place.

The phrase “know thyself” becomes more about

knowing one’s cholesterol level and number of sex

partners than it does about analyzing—or actually

feeling—the things that make you an individual (or the

things that make you want to have sex or eat triplecrème

cheeses). And therefore the artwork that Hug

is making right now, beyond its pleasing aesthetic, is

important because it asks us to question what these

statistical analytics are really telling us. If eighty percent

of people wish for a “better body,” say, what does

that really indicate? Is it our incessant need to find amelioration

in self-loathing, our devotion to the superficial,

our need to define ourselves from the outside in, or the

fact that the quasi-qualitative appellation of “better”

has no real meaning at all? This frustrating obfuscation

is precisely what makes Hug’s repurposing of statistical

data akin to Toto throwing open the curtain on the

Wizard of Oz. Perhaps all those endless percentages

are really nothing more than another roadmap toward

a life less known and less knowing.