Nicholas is blue and porcelain; Paul is red terra-cotta. Through his glasses, Nicholas' stare is empty, seemingly unable to even remember who he is; while Paul, looking out of one eye, focuses on his hand, perhaps on what he has lost. Both have wrinkles wrapping around their faces.
Both are also, it should be said, sculptures, and will be on display at Lux Center for the Arts, part of artist Luke Huling's upcoming exhibit "Geriatric: Narratives of Forgotten Stories." Huling's work is an intriguing mix of soft metals and ceramics that confronts issues of death, decay and the inexorable march of time.
Huling, a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is a current artist-in-residence at Lux. He recently graduated from Edinburo University – also in Pennsylvania – with an emphasis in the two areas that constitute his work: he majored in ceramics and took a minor in metalsmithing. Having recently signed a contract to stay as an artist-in-residence at Lux for another year, Huling credits his university teachers with inspiring his work.
“You can take any art class you want, but if you don’t have a teacher who is really into it, and is really motivated and really wants to help you in particular, you might not have as good of a time as somebody else," he said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for an artist whose work prominently features metal and ceramic, Huling's most inspiring professors were his ceramics and metalsmithing instructors – perhaps especially the latter, who opened his eyes to mixed-media sculpture.
“At that point, I didn’t know that I could – I thought it was frowned upon to mix both of them together in a solely, only metals class," he said. "She [his metals professor] really kickstarted my combination of mixing them both together. Now I can’t really imagine creating a piece without using both.”
Indeed, it's difficult to imagine how Huling's art would even be remotely the same without its combination of metal and ceramic. Nicholas' glasses, for example, are painstakingly handmade by Huling, and draw you to the sculpture immediately; they rest on his nose and were basically fitted to his face.
At first, Nicholas can seem almost creepy. But once you settle in and stare into his eyes (so well done they have been mistaken by some for glass eyes), you can see the longing, the vacancy, of a dissipated mind, brought to your attention by the mounted terra-cotta brains on top of his head.
Paul, another recent sculpture of Huling's, would also not be the same without the mix of materials. He comes in two parts: his upper torso, and a disembodied hand with a metal base, which includes fingers attached via a metal joint. While Nicholas loses his creepiness, Paul retains it no matter how long you look at him. Still, there is a strong element of sympathy in the work, too. With that hand, Paul is desperately trying to keep ahold of something that he ultimately will lose. It's a piece, Huling said, that shows both the deconstruction of the self and the destruction of the body.
Nicholas and Paul, like all of Huling's "geriatric" work, have been inspired by his work as a part-time activities director at a home for individuals with Alzheimer's and dementia. It also stems from his grandmother, who had Alzheimer's, and lived with Huling and his family for a time.
Huling laughed when he told me a story of coming home one afternoon to find his grandmother sweeping the kitchen floor – but without a stitch on. Then a teenager, Huling asked her what she was doing. She replied curtly: "It's hot."
Alzheimer's, he said, made his grandmother "not care about social norms," and likewise Huling's art is centered on the essential. Through it, we are forced to adjust ourselves to difficult – but essential – truths.
While I'm reminded of Alice Munro's story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," which dealt with dementia in a marriage, and the book and recent movie "Still Alice," about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer's, it is not often that I have seen these issues in the visual arts. The same was true for Huling, apparently.
“These people are not really shown in modern art," he said. "It’s mostly young and beautiful bodies, and I kind of really loved sculpting the fine wrinkles and details.” On his website, Huling noted that he was "intrigued by wrinkles on the face and the passage of time they portray."
Just as importantly, though, Huling's work seeks to help us remember those whose memories may keep them from remembering themselves.
“I’m trying to show people not to forget these people," he said.