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Leering at the Gyre

John Huffman, The Lift



Detail of The Gyre (Source: Katie Ericson)

Response from Katie Ericson

December 3, 2013

At 8 p.m. on a Friday, the Lift is only half-full, people clustering together near the FREE PIZZA boxes and bar. With the lighting turned down to a dim glow, it is almost easy to miss the array of art hanging on the dark wooden walls. If it weren’t for the few random people staring intently at these paintings, the bar might have seemed like a typical drinking hole. But they do stand and stare, squinting in the light to see every detail. A few works shine in the dark though, their obscene colors and grotesque faces appearing like psychedelic gargoyles.

The exhibit is by John Huffman and his works cover the walls of the bar. Most feature distorted faces like sickened cartoons that leer and glare threateningly from their painted canvases. Plain colors and backgrounds focus all attention on the contorted creature(s) in the frame. In the low light, the surprisingly dark lines that outline the things’ twisted expressions seem even more dramatic. Overall it’s a rather chilling display.


Huffman’s “The Gyre" (Source: Katie Ericson)

But some pieces stand out more than the rest – “The Gyre” is a particularly disturbing piece. Placed in the center of a wall with a solitary light shining on it, the bright red of the portrait blares out through the groups and gatherings of people like a mounted stop light. Two vaguely Texas-like shapes leer out at the viewer with pointed teeth and three eyes. A streak of messy spray paint cuts through all three of the eyes, drips blurring the firm black lines.


Detail of The Gyre (Source: Katie Ericson)

Yet the thing that makes this painting stand out are the six small figures dotting the border of the piece. A goose with wounds on its chest, a scarred swordfish, a tilted and tainted bird, a whale with a long gash, an unlabeled red can, and a trash bag with “FUCK” written on a red label all sit on the edge of the painting, their forlorn eyes empty. All are small compared to the two large figures and require investigation, making the viewer lean in close to the laughing red eyes of the states.

Its overall effect is one of extreme discomfort. It seems to be making a statement about pollution – how humans can be more dangerous than nature itself. A gyre is a swirling vortex that often refers to oceanic current patterns, hurricanes, or tornadoes. The piece suggests that humans are a more dangerous gyre than those, hurting innocent animals with trash and pretending the damage comes from nature.

Perhaps I read too much into the piece. There is certainly a temptation to do so when surrounded by the sneering faces and staring eyes of Huffman’s exhibit. Either way, the piece was disturbing in a surprisingly intriguing way. The exhibit as a whole was this same way, each face with a new expression, a new form of disdain and disgust. Though thoroughly unsettling, it managed to still be pleasant.

I’m Katie Ericson, a Junior Writing and Music double major at Drake University. When not lost somewhere in our Fine Arts Building, I enjoy watching far too much Doctor Who and Top Gear.