Los Angeles Magazine: Seeing Optical Art Another Way in Julian Hoeber’s Latest Works

March 10, 2023

Michael Slenske

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The work of the Philadelphia-born, Los Angeles-based multimedia artist Julian Hoeber has long dealt with psychology, architecture, and the way phenomenology is used to explain op art and the particularities of subjective consciousness. 

His wide-ranging oeuvre includes structural wall reliefs made from plywood and colored string (replicating some merger of instrument and curtain wall), replicas of airport terminals designed for “going nowhere,” and cast concrete doll houses inspired by one that his babysitter—the daughter of legendary modernist architect Louis Kahn—made for him when he was a child. Despite all that, during the pandemic, Hoeber lost the op art architecture thread for a little over a year and attempted to make paintings of “internal experiences” manifested in the human form. 

“I had this moment in isolation where I was like, ‘You know, I’ve always liked figurative expressionism, so maybe I’ll just do some of that.’ And it was awful,” Hoeber says with a laugh on a blistering cold February morning in his skylit studio. 

His workspace is situated between Boyle Heights and Vernon and occupies the space of a former science lab where materials were once tested for durability and strength. The whole time he was making these bad paintings—they vacillated between the styles of Edvard Munch, the Norwegian expressionist behind The Scream, and the guttural abstractions of Albert Oehlen—Hoeber was also reading texts on phenomenology, analytic philosophy, and neuroscience. These texts exposed him to the technique of Continuous Flash Suppression, which is when scientists show two images, typically via video, to each eye and the visual stimulus for one eye suppresses awareness of the image as a result of rapidly morphing patterns exposed to the other eye. 

“There’s a pattern that they can show to one of the eyes that makes the other eye go effectively blind. The way it happens is it just pulls all the brain’s bandwidth to that image. For instance, they can show a pornographic image and the person doesn’t see anything, but they blush,” Hoeber explains. “Part of what they’re trying to figure out is if that’s where consciousness exists.” 

What happens, Hoeber thought, if he used binocular rivalry and stereo photography techniques to make paintings? What does that do to and for a painting and its intended viewer? That’s the basis for his latest show, I Went to See Myself but I Saw You, which opens this Saturday (through April 15) at Blum & Poe in Culver City. 

In addition to canvases that feature dueling images of gradient gestural fields with different colored squares in the middle, the works include near-identical (circular and rectangular) geometric volumes, index fingers covering and scaling the moon, two vantages of Catherine Opie’s 4×5 camera (Hoeber’s wife works for the photographer), and a cinematic image of the Swiss countryside. 

“That’s the first image that came up when I googled 'landscape,'’’ says Hoeber, who made the image with RGB color values and contained them all with Polaroid-like borders. He also created a mirrored sculpture that operates as a fractalized window of sorts and variations on the Wheatstone stereoscope; this device was invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone and places a pair of mirrors at 45-degree angles to the viewer’s eyes and allows them to see a right and left eye view simultaneously as the brain fuses the resulting images together. 

Hoeber is not the first to use this optical tech for art purposes: Robert Smithson made his version in the 1960s and Salvador Dali did some in the 1970s. But Hoeber is, arguably, taking the device the furthest into the realm of human consciousness, by making it a wall-mountable, architectural structure that explores the uncanny valley, perception, and reality itself. 

Inside In and Out of Captivity, which is also painted red, blue and green, Hoeber is pairing up a taxidermied parrot and a cage in the form of one of his string wall reliefs. When the images collapse, the seemingly free bird gets locked inside the off-kilter enclosure. In What Two Animals are Most Alike? Hoeber pairs up opposing sculptures he made to resemble the ambiguous rabbit-duck figure by American psychologist Joseph Jastrow. Hoeber painted one to appear more mallard; the other to give the sense of a white cottontail—whose “aspect perception” has been a subject of inquiry by everyone from Ludwig Wittgenstein to the writers of How I Met Your Mother. At Blum & Poe, it becomes a sculptural inquiry that blurs the lines of an illusion some have used to measure intelligence. 

“It’s one of my favorite things that I’ve ever made,” says Hoeber, noting the sculpture not only collapses the rabbit-duck but, as a result of its open frame construction, reframes the gallery itself. “In a fairly neutral space, it does this really interesting thing where the white walls seem to oppose each other in your eyes.” 

For two free-standing sculptures—one in mirrored glass, another in polished steel and aluminum—which both share their titles with the exhibition, Hoeber doubled up a pair of Wheatstone stereo viewers. When I looked in this fun house monolith I saw a fractalized version of Hoeber, smiling back at me, his beard, glasses and hoodie pulling apart at the seams. After witnessing so many illusions and grappling with so many perception shifts, you start to ask yourself: “Where did I go? Am I really here at all?” 

“It’s like I had a particular set of anxieties that I was trying to work out in my artwork when I was young. And then I started learning things about the world and they became ways to process that material. And that material goes from being anxiety to being content,” says Hoeber, who did nine years of Kleinian psychoanalysis. 

This began in grad school at Art Center when he studied with Mike Kelley (and later when he worked in the studios of Paul McCarthy and Jim Shaw). After taking a few years off psychoanalysis, he jumped back into therapy with eye movement desensitization and he even tried to work on some AI versions of EMDR but abandoned those for sculpture. Hoeber is, however, working on some 3-D movies to extend his stereoscopic investigations into the future. 

“The entire project for the last 20 years has been about trying to figure out this thing going on inside my mind. It feels very real, and I encounter you and I have to sort of just assume that you’ve got one of those happening for you, too. But I don’t have definitive evidence of that,” he says. “And the idea of objective versus subjective, interior versus exterior is this constant navigation, and the whole thing of art is taking your subjective experience and putting it into the world for someone else to absorb in a way that’s different than just being like, ‘Trust me, I’m a person.’” 

At this fragile moment in the human experiment, Hoeber is inviting us to take a good, hard look in the mirror—especially ones that make you question if any of this is really happening.

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