8 Things
William Hundley, Artist

The artist William Hundley — known for photographing plumes of fabric hovering enigmatically in mid-air and strange objects balancing atop cheeseburgers — recently began experimenting with self-portraits. Which wouldn’t be out of the ordinary, except that Hundley happens to hate letting people know what he looks like, so he obscures the photos of his face with collages of weird body parts and other incongruous images. He’s also been playing with masks, shooting the results of elaborate tribal-inspired face-painting sessions with his fiancée. “There’s this perception that I’m this badass artist who doesn’t give a fuck, this imagined character,” says Hundley, a boyish Texas native who lives deep in the suburbs of Austin. “But I work at a hospital in IT. So that’s why I don’t like putting images of myself or a biography out there — I mean look at me, I’m all-American white-boy looking. It would ruin the illusion.”

Then again, there’s not actually much to hide besides his clean-cut appearance: Hundley studied painting and sculpture in school, has an encyclopedic knowledge of art history, and spent the first part of his career as an art director, only trading it for the hospital job in order to free his creative work from any financial burdens. And when the contemporary art curator of the Menil Collection recently visited his studio only to find out it was in the garage of his carpeted two-bedroom house, right there with the lawnmower, no one so much as batted an eyelash. In fact, the nature of Hundley’s art — which delights in the awkward and ridiculous, like portraits of Chihuahuas wearing burger shoes — make his unlikely identity traits all the more fitting. “My work started with the influence of Erwin Wurm and Maurizio Cattelan, these absurdists,” he says. “I love the practical-joke nature of it; if I can make humor and beautiful aesthetics come together, that’s the biggest powerhouse I can imagine.” Here’s a closer look at Hundley’s diverse inspirations.


Hundley’s best-known series (pictured) involves photographing subjects jumping high into the air with their bodies tucked behind a piece of fabric or mylar, producing mysterious shots that seem to defy logic. “When I started, I had some fabric in my car I had planned to paint on, and I tried jumping behind it in midair to see what would happen,” he says. “I looked at the images and thought, that’s the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever seen: A piece of pink fabric four feet up in the air, so small there was no way a body could fit behind it, and all you see is my feet poking out and my hair. I latched onto it and would go out shooting with my friends, climbing on roofs and breaking ankles, and come back with hundreds of them.”


Freeze-frame photography: The floating fabric images — which required upwards of a hundred test jumps per shot, and very sore legs the next day, before Hundley eventually managed to get his hands on a rapid-shutter camera — were partially inspired by his love for freeze-frame photography, the genre pioneered by Eadweard Muybridge. “When I was a kid, I’d go to the library and gather images from the photography section or the sports or animal sections to copy and make drawings of later,” he says. “When I would come across these frozen action photographs it would just enthrall me to wonder what had just happened or was about to. Your brain tries to put together this riddle of what might be going on in this frozen moment.”


Freeze-frame photography: “With my fabric photos I create the same kinds of visual riddles: here’s a huddling thing, cropped to where you can see all the space around it, and it wasn’t thrown there, it didn’t fly there, so how did it happen? I wish I could turn my photographs into sculptures hanging in the same position, frozen in time. That’s actually how the photography started for me — I was trying to capture ideas in order to recreate them later in a different medium, then I started staging the photos, then I ended up thinking the photos were interesting in and of themselves.”


Parachutes: “After I began my fabric work, I started thinking about using parachutes,” says Hundley.


Parachutes: “I’ve always been into inflatable things — it’s only air, not this sculpture in a truck you have to deliver somewhere,” he says. “It’s to-go, which is more convenient for making installations as big as I want to make them. And parachutes are beautiful in the ways in which you can physically interact with them.”


Parachutes: “I used a parachute in a couple of photos, and then I installed it in the wall of the Austin gallery space Co-Lab with a fan set in front of it, so it became this big inflated monster,” he says. “I’m definitely going to keep pursuing both angles, sculptural and photographic, and eventually tie them together by creating an installation with same material I used in the photos.” Above: An installation view from Hundley's "Today's Headlines Wrap Tomorrow's Fish" exhibition at Co-Lab


Parachutes: “I also want to use parachutes to make kind of a plus-size version of my fabric series (pictured), with cars or vans floating in the air as opposed to people. I’m not sure how, but you have to put those goals out there and fight to achieve them. That used to be how all great ideas started, with something completely absurd or unattainable.”


Michel Gondry: “So far the fabric photos have been a three-year adventure of trying to get obscure, odd images without using Photoshop,” explains Hundley, citing the inventive French filmmaker Michel Gondry as an inspiration for his similarly analog approach. "His work looks digital, but something’s actually in front of the camera creating that effect. I hate cropping, and I hate editing colors if I don’t have to. The way Gondry can create these visuals by using nothing but tape and cardboard is brilliant.”


Michel Gondry: “When you see Gondry’s work, you think: creativity. This guy has a million ideas. His music videos are visual puzzles; it’s like a really good pool player who knows the next six or seven shots, but he lines it all up for you to follow. Watching his videos gives you an understanding of just how wide a visual range he has, from Lego White Stripes to Bjork monsters. He goes the extra step to make his work that much more elaborate or detailed.”


Octopuses: Beyond the obvious formal comparison between his fabric plumes and these spinelessly fluid cephalopods, Hundley has long been amazed by octopuses’ many talents. “Growing up I always drew and painted them,” he says. “Then I learned about them, and they’re chromatophores — meaning they can change their skin color — they’re incredibly intelligent, and they can basically fit themselves into any hole they can fit their eyes and mouth through. It’s just crazy, I don’t know how something like that is made, or how it evolved to be that way.”


Octopuses: “Really, though, it’s the ambiguity of the octopus I relate to — I also like to lay low. He squirts ink to give himself a cover, and I put up sheets to cover myself or my friends, and capture it like an ink squirt in the air. It’s like a layer of disguise. When an octopus squirts out a cloud of black ink in blue water and disappears behind it, like a magician, that’s how I feel when I make the photographs: I’m not doing anything high tech, just creating this quick distraction, this sudden concealment. But what’s packed behind the fabric is this amazing person doing an acrobatic feat, and I love hiding that from the audience. When they find out it has an incredible impact.”


Erwin Wurm: Despite the fact that Hundley’s dayjob is in IT management at an Austin hospital, “I’m always thinking about art,” he says. “I’ll be in a meeting with eight executives and they’re yapping and I’m thinking, Erwin Wurm in the corner of a gallery sticking his head in a bucket.” The Austrian contemporary artist is known for his temporary sculptures, which involve people posing in strange situations and interacting with objects, and he’s a huge influence on Hundley. “I love how Wurm injects humans into work, how it becomes this ephemeral thing. It’s a continuation of this degradation of art, in the sense that you can’t buy it and put it on your wall. It pushes envelopes.” Above: One of Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures


Erwin Wurm: “His sculptural work is great too. A house coming off the side of a museum, fat cars — it’s brilliant. With Cattelan’s work you have this darker, sharper look that appeals more to your head than your eyeballs, but Wurm’s is much more approachable. A lot of it is visually funny. I also like how he jumps mediums as well, from sculpture to photography.” Above: Wurm’s “Truck” (2005)


Erwin Wurm: Much of Hundley’s work is similarly temporary. Most of the installations he sets up and photographs he destroys afterwards, and for his “Little Naked Person Storage” series (picured), he invites various acquaintances to momentarily stuff themselves into odd household nooks and crannies. “I just wanted to put little naked people in places,” he explains. “I did just about every spot in my house, so now it’s about finding other people who are willing to pose, then going to their spaces and figuring out where they can stash themselves.”


Christo: “When I first started studying art and art history, of course you come across Christo,” says Hundley. “He blew me away: Holy shit, this guy’s taking his ideas to a grand scale. Immediately he became one of my influences, and this idea of fabric, of wrapping and enveloping things, fell into my work. I read somewhere that he wants to wrap the Sea of Tranquility on the moon, which goes back to the importance of putting lofty goals out there. He draws up these brilliant but large ideas, and they become reality, which is really something to look up to.”


Christo: Though he has grand ambitions as well, for now Hundley does most of his work on a much more attainable scale: whatever he can fit in the confines of his two-car garage. Most of his installations pieces and photographic setups appear and disappear amongst a pile of random materials he keeps out there, like this untitled piece made from dirty rags and dirty laundry. “Once again I was working with fabric and whatever was laying around,” he says. “My garage is right next to the laundry room, so I was basically thinking: I bet I could make a sculpture out of this!” Of course, at times the approach can have unintended consequences, he admits: “One review said, ‘William Hundley’s piece initially looked like hanging trash…’”


Adbusters: “Chris Ofili puts things on elephant dung, and I put things on cheeseburgers,” Hundley says of his most infamous photo series. “It’s just a matter of, what do I have in my garage or in my house that I can put on fuckin’ cheeseburgers? The social commentary of it, I don’t go there, but I’m no idiot; I know how people are going to read this. I loved Supersize Me and back in the day I was hugely influenced by Adbusters, but I don’t actually state that anywhere, because I believe in independent thought. I put out very few artist’s statements.”


Adbusters: “That said, I do align with a lot of the thoughts from Adbusters, and I’ve been a subscriber on and off for years. I think corporations are getting a way with a lot of ridiculous bullshit, and the cattle and meat industry is disguisting — it makes me want to puke. It’s really an absurd situation we’ve put ourselves into as far as consumer culture. We’re losing the survival instinct of the human being more and more each day. We would die without electricity. But I only hint at that in my work — I don’t want to sound like someone getting on a soap box and bitching about it. I’m not delivering direct messages, just planting images in people’s heads and letting them think whatever they want to think. But yes, it’s definitely in my head.” Above: Hundley's "Chihuahua on Cheeseburgers"


Natural Fashion book: Hundley calls photographer Hans Silvester’s Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration From Africa (pictured) “the most inspiring book I’ve picked up in a long time. The people he’s documented use everyday materials from their surroundings to make pigments and paint each other’s faces every day, so it’s kind of like their expression. I love how loosely they paint each other; they do it in two minutes, but it looks like it took them two hours.”


Natural Fashion book: “My fiancée and I have been getting together and painting each other and taking photos (pictured). I don’t know where it’s going, and that’s what I like about it. I’m using collage, but not using glue: I set up a bunch of cutouts and then I photograph it, then I move them again. The output is a digital printout. Besides the tribal elements, John Stezacker and Thorston Brinkmann have been two big influences, since they love messing with faces.”


Natural Fashion book: One of Hundley’s self-portraits. “Lately I’ve also been making mask-like wall-hangings out of fabric and neckties. I’m influenced a bit by Brian Jungen, who takes a tribal approach to contemporary items, making totem poles out of golf bags or masks out of Nike sneakers. A lot of the paintings I’m working on are also very tribal, with me doodling all over every inch of the piece. When I get into an idea it’s hard for me to let go of it until I think it’s done.”