For more than two decades now, some of the most twisted, hilarious, shocking, satiric, brilliant, and original American art has been produced by a stocky, tattooed guy in St. Louis, Missouri, called Tom Hück. Much of that work—small-batch prints made from large woodcuts—began life in a studio and print shop just north of downtown in a neighborhood of brick-built former factories that got pretty gritty for a while but has bounced back recently, attracting artists, small startups, craft brewers, and the like.
Head to a certain stretch of Washington Street and you’ll see a storefront sharing a two-story building with Bootleggin’ BBQ. Across the broad street, the kind with diagonal parking, is the Brick River Cider company. As for that modest storefront, its window is home to a poster reading, “TOM HÜCK’S EVIL PRINTS: ST. LOUIS.” It’s got red and black lettering, with a logo of a grinning, googly-eyed devil. “FINE ART PRINTMAKING: PRINT OR DIE,” reads another poster. If that doesn’t get your attention, maybe the one carrying the print shop’s slogan—“DISGUSTING THE MASSES SINCE 1995”—does the trick.
Inside, the red and black color scheme continues. Young tattooed assistants dressed in black T-shirts stand at work tables, getting prints made. You can smell ink, paper, and oil. A monstrous piece of machinery—Hück’s custom-made printer—sits at the heart of the space. And startling woodcut prints, some as tall as eight feet, grace the walls. Every square inch of these illustrations is filled with detail, figures crowded into frame. There’s violence, sex, rural people behaving badly. I see weird bugs, demons, skulls. A KKK hood. A bare-breasted woman in bondage. But the vibe’s not exactly grim. There’s dark comedy.
There’s social satire, directed at inequalities and social oppression. Bodies and faces are stylized, features exaggerated, like in the id-powered cartoons of Robert Crumb.
And as in the medieval paintings of Holland’s Pieter Bruegel, or the work of eighteenth-century English satirist William Hogarth—two artists critics cite when discussing Hück’s prints—the imagery seems to capture stories in progress, with subplots and mini-dramas unfolding in the intricate details.
The effect of viewing multiple Hück prints at once is potent—like a boot to the gut. The print shop has a rebellious, underground feel, almost like a punk rock club. I see posters for thunderous bands like the Misfits and Motörhead on the walls. And then I meet Tom Hück himself, a bulldog of a man, 47, dressed in a black shirt and black jeans. With his Van Dyke beard and mustache, bald head, and sleeves of tattoos, he could pass for a Hells Angels biker, or an Iron Maiden roadie. But he’s warm, funny, and talkative.
Hück works primarily in woodcuts, ingeniously updating a painstaking, pre-modern form. He spends months into years on his bigger creations, if you count the composition time along with the carving. He often uses four-by-eight-foot plywood sheets. A world-renowned artist, Hück’s work has exhibited at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Harvard University’s Fogg Museum, and other prestigious venues. The Whitney owns a work titled Chili Dogs, Chicks, and Monster Trucks. Other Hück works are Up Dung Creek, The Transformation of Brandy Baghead, and Hillbilly Kama Sutra. Currently he’s spending time in Aberdeen, Scotland, on a two-year residency. While abroad, he’s creating an epic three-panel woodcut called A Monkey Mountain Chronicle: The Great American Turdburger Conspiracy.