Jeff Huntington

New Paintings

April 17 - May 22, 2009

Opening Reception

Friday, April 17th, 6:30 - 9 PM

Artist Talk with Writer and Curator Sarah Tanguy

Friday, May 1st, 6:30 PM

“Rarely does an artist come into the Corcoran who gets huge grants before he graduates, has his thesis show done (and sold out) before senior year starts, is the number one draft pick at the Chicago Art Institute, getting the first pick of studios overlooking Lake Michigan from the 16th floor. Museums were showing him in Chicago and the galleries wanted him to stay but he was drawn to the warm waters of Costa Rica and the sport of tarpon fishing of which he was a master, like everything else he does. He is now living in Annapolis, Maryland doing things other than what he should be spending every waking moment doing. Jeff Huntington is a painter and he should be painting nonstop. This new show is just the beginning of what is yet to come.”

— William Newman, Professor, Corcoran School of Art

Of Mirrors and Mug Shots: The Anxious Art of Jeff Huntington

By Gareth Branwyn


At an allegorical level, the main theme is the conflicting impulses towards civilization (live by rules, peacefully and in harmony), and towards the will to power. Other themes include the tension between groupthink and individuality, between rational and emotional reactions, and between morality and immorality. How these play out, how different people feel the influences of these, forms a major subtext of the story.

Lord of the Flies entry, Wikipedia


When Jeff Huntington was 15 years old, he and a buddy stole a car, his friend's family car, a Ford LTD. They scooped up as much cash and booze as they could gather, stuffed a surfboard into the back of that icon of American middle class illusions of luxury, and headed for Florida. Jeff never looked back, but through his art, he's never stopped looking over his shoulder.


Jeff Huntington is a nervous artist. Not nervous as in a nervous disposition -- at least not more so than most of us -- but nervousness as a focus of his artistic interest, a reoccurring theme -- even he might admit -- something of an obsession.

Jeff can't remember not being an artist. He began to paint when he was eight. As a boy, he collected the Star Wars cards from loaves of Wonder Bread and painted them. His father went to art school. So did his brothers. And his grandfather and grandmother, too. The thought of being anything but an artist never even occurred to him.

At 16, still away from home, but an absence now accepted by his parents, Jeff started making and selling tie-dye T-shirts in Ocean City, MD. He made a decent living at it, even sent money home. He applied and got his GED. “It looked exactly like the diploma my brothers got,” he proudly announces. From there, he set his sights on art school. He decided to apply to the Corcoran School of Art in DC. He needed a scholarship to be able to afford it. In preparation for applying, he produced 300 paintings. You only needed 20. He submitted 60.


Okay, maybe Jeff Huntington is more nervous than most.

But being a little tightly wound has its privileges. His prolific work got him into the Corcoranwith relative ease, where he went on to receive his BFA. Then it was on to the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute awards only one full scholarship each year. 1995 was Jeff Huntington's year. He went on to get his MFA there.

Jeff doesn't like writing artist statements. He'd rather the work speak for itself. Perhaps that'sone of the reasons why he focuses so tightly on human figurative painting, especially portraiture, and why he encodes so many interactive possibilities into the intensely human and vulnerable subjects he renders. It's as though he wants them to literally speak for themselves.


Hooking up with Jeff Huntington, in search of background material and the motivations behind his new show, generically entitled “New Paintings,” he and I hop into the stolen car of our imaginations and blaze a trail, south, across a dizzying fear-and-loathing landscape of broken dreams, stolen childhoods, emaciated supermodels, Khmer Rouge prisoner and genocide photos, vampire time (working through the night), the living (child) Goddess of Nepal, the primitive adolescent regressions of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and the 15,000-pluspage fever dream of outsider artist Henry Darger. And celebrity mug shots.



Mug shots! I slam on the mind-brakes. That's the key to understanding at least one of the main aesthetic currents on which Jeff Huntington travels. Most of his portraits behave like mug shots. They capture their subjects in moments of stress, duress, panic, anxiety, despair, fear, confusion, or resignation. Like a police booking photograph. We talk about this, what a horrific thing a mug shot really is -- the lowest point in a person's life: an arrest, or in the case of the Khmer Rouge photos, the prelude to an execution, a moment of ultimate confrontation, of utter vulnerability, preserved for all time, like some prehistoric mosquito in amber. You can't look at

a mug shot without feeling a certain connection with the subject, a certain participation in their fear and shame, and you can't help but think about how you would feel up against that wall, about to have your personal transgressions (or unjustified accusations) persevered through time. If you look at a lot of mug shots (and Jeff assures me that he has), you begin to hear the conversations that the subjects want to have with you. There's so much present there, in those damp, saddened eyes, seeking out yours, in the intensity of the taut body language, the grim concentration camp-like accounting of the ID slate. It's as if the subjects wish to confess, or profess their innocence, to say or do anything to make that ghastly moment cease to exist.


Bringing these ideas face to face with Jeff's nine New Paintings, their subjects also seem ready to talk. But unlike Jeff's previous shows, which have traded more in the grotesque and the overtly unsettling, the confrontation of these characters is far more subtle. And ambiguous. Inspired by Darger's and Golding's child fantasy worlds, with their promises of Utopia and their undercurrents of violence and menace, Huntington has created an alternate universe where children are forced into the absurd riggings of formal European and Asian antique costumes. And where the court painter can't seem to decide whether to render a classic aristocratic portrait or a poster for a communist worker's rally.


Jeff used his own nieces and nephews as the models for these paintings. Their United Colors of Benetton-like racial diversity appealed to him, the universality they represent, and the intimacy of family becoming so deeply obscured beneath the borrowed trappings of 17th century Dutch masters, totalitarian propaganda art, and the overarching issues of identity, anxiety, and emotional longing in which Huntington's work continues to deal.


To evoke the Old Masters feel, and the iconographic religious and state power found in Renaissance portraits, Jeff worked in oils, starting with black and white underpainting using high-contrasting tonal values. Employing the grisaille painting technique, with shades of gray used to create an almost three-dimensional relief effect, he then glazed translucent layers of color over the underpainting. This technique, famously used by Vermeer, was taught to him during an apprenticeship with well-known DC-area artist, and Corcoran painting professor, Bill Newman, in the early 1990s.


The realms of Darger and the Lord of the Flies are mirror worlds, ones similar to our own, but inverted, askew. Twilight zones. Jeff Huntington's New Paintings offer nine young subjects looking out at us from some alternate universe where... what? Children have upended the social order and become our masters? Children are forced into adult roles and responsibilities, their innocence irrevocably stolen? Children are trussed up in regal costumes for the perverse pleasure and amusement of adults? Children are used as iconographic tools of propaganda for the ambitions of unseen others? Or maybe all of this is just you, the viewer, being paranoid, reading too much into these images. Maybe it's just Jeff Huntington's nieces and nephews playing dress up in Jeff's mind.


But like looking into a mirror, it's hard not to look into the painstakingly, exquisitely rendered eyes of these subjects -- so effectively holding your gaze, seeming to convey so much personality and back-story -- without starting your own conversations on innocence and identity.


BTW: The Ford LTD that Jeff Huntington stole away in toward his future better keep an eye out in its rear view mirror. The "Luxury Trim Décor" of Jeff's misspent youth has morphed into the present-day Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. The LTD-cum-police cruiser is coming after you, Jeff Huntington. For mug shots.

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