home page link
1990 04 05 Sculpture May The Circle Be Unbroken Ron Huebner exhibition wide shot
1990 04 05 Sculpture May The Circle Be Unbroken Ron Huebner circle sculpture close up
1990 04 05 Sculpture May The Circle Be Unbroken Ron Huebner typed statements on ceiling

Ron Huebner - May the Circle Be Unbroken
April 5 1990

“It would seem that Huebner wishes us to link our organic, instinctive feeling powers to our thinking powers, as our vision of the world must be extended to encompass the invisible energies derived from nature with which we have lost contact.”
Haraldsson, Arni Runar. C Magazine #14, June 1987.

“In much of the new work in which the forms have been held unitary, placement becomes critical as it never was before in establishing the particular quality of the work.”
Morris, Robert. "Notes on Sculpture." 1966. Reprinted in Minimal Art: a Critical Anthology. Ed. Gregory Battcock. London: Studio Vista, 1969. - 235. Print.

1990 04 05 Sculpture May The Circle Be Unbroken Ron Huebner circle sculpture close up

Tomb Monsters
The Sculpture of Ron Huebner

“Sculpture is the art of that which does not move…of death and the tomb.”
- Sidney Geist1

“(Monsters are) a powerful expression of a human fear of the uncategorizable, of that which is betwixt and between"
- Lucy Hughes-Hallett2

Each art generation despairs of the next, re-forecasting the imminent death of art. Yet art always survives. What dies are artists. Art remains. This is the sadness and the meaning of Ron Huebner’s sculpture.

Huebner died in a traffic accident in Amsterdam in 2004. He, ironically, had just begun a series of asphalt traffic-control speed bumps in the form of reclining male and female figures. For two decades previous, he produced work characterized by disturbing contradictions.

Consider an anecdote of a sculpture professor reviewing student work. The sculpture all moves in some way, mechanically or otherwise. The students sit and the professor stands. The professor asks why all the sculptures move. The students reply that it makes sculpture more interesting. The professor paces around the work and reminds the students that circumambulation is traditionally the role of the spectator. The students remain sitting, as if watching television. These two attitudes seem irreconcilable. Huebner attempted to prove that they are not.

Many of Ron Huebner’s sculptures are pseudo-monolithic blocks, relatively small objects resembling furniture or domestic appliances. They also resemble electrified funerary cenotaphs. Early modernist Neo-Vitalist3 sculptors were animists of a sort, preoccupied with the reanimation of dead materials like stone and metal, but this was a semi-rural conceit: all seeds, eggs and fecundity. Huebner’s attitude toward reactivating material was more cynical and literal.

Huebner’s sculpture attempted to reconcile movement (including electrical animation, vibration, heat and sound) with static mass. His sculpture allows cautious circumambulation, continually interrupted by the jagged crackle of electricity. It is as if there is something coiled within Huebner’s sculptural block, threatening and barely contained. The sound, the vibration and sometimes the heat of these monoliths give us clues to the interiors.

Untitled, 1981 is a concrete block, approximately 30 centimetre square at top and bottom and somewhat narrower at mid-section, like a human torso or a single section from Brancusi’s Endless Column. With three, rune-like glyphs on the front, it looks like a tombstone with an electrical cord. From inside comes an obscure buzzing sound, as if there might be something slowly, but diligently, grinding its way to the surface: a sculptor carving or a rat gnawing from the inside out. It humorously recalls Michelangelo on the figure supposedly imprisoned within each block of stone.4 Inside is indeed a small round grinding stone attached to an electrical motor.5

Untitled, 1982 is a large ring of concrete - like a toilet bowl seat for a giant - with three electrical cords protruding from the rim. These tattered cords look like the tails of laboratory rats, each sculpture an experiment. It vibrates. There are three working electrical razors embedded in the mass. Unplugged, it looks like a sculpture by Isamu Noguchi or an inverted version of Katharina Fritsch’s Rattenkönig/Rat King 1993.

There is an instinctive fear of sound emanating from within an apparently solid block - perhaps an atavistic fear of the snake beneath the stone - a “fear of the uncategorizable”, of that which is betwixt and between”6: a fear of monsters.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster are social commentaries, embodiments of the horrifying aspects of their respective contemporary societies.7 Monsters are mearcstappa (O.E. ‘border-steppers’), hybrids: like mythical centaurs, gorgons and sphinxes - all mutation and adaptation, projections of the fear of the anomalous. Monsters are portents8 of the evolving future. The construction of Huebner’s sculpture, his monster, was a sign of discontent with present time. It was a longing for a future in which the present monstrousness may find some reconciliation.

Untitled, 1984 is a table with a polished steel surface. A circular hole in the center gives it the appearance of a washstand. A balloon stretches over a speaker set into the hole. Bouncing on this membrane are tiny Styrofoam packing pellets, producing a blurry mass of vibration, forming and reforming in response to the pulse of a recorded text. Sculpture as a nervously laughing mass, sculpture made from aether.9

Untitled (lawn Chairs), 1989 is a set of three six-foot-long lawn chairs in welded steel. They look like chairs for tanning by the poolside, except that Huebner added heating coils to raise the surface temperature of the steel to 170 degrees Fahrenheit.10 In a row, the chairs recall Minimalism, and like Minimalism, they suggest coffins and tombstone slabs, memorials to middle class leisure, imprisonment as tormented passivity.

Huebner was always uncomfortable in the “picture-postcard art scene”11 of Vancouver. Although from British Columbia, he was educated at NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) in Halifax. If Huebner’s student years were not the halcyon years of NSCAD conceptual art, they were the years of the ascendency of sculpture at NSCAD under John Greer, Dennis Gill and Thierry Delva. After NSCAD, Huebner served as studio assistant to Dennis Oppenheim in New York City. The influence of Greer12 and Oppenheim on his sculpture is obvious. Less obvious is the way in which Huebner’s education in sculpture did not travel well.

The Maritimes are not usually included in the Canadian art history narrative, which is generally restricted to Central Canada and its most ‘significant’ provinces.13 To the east coast artist, ‘Canadian Art’ is a euphemism for ‘Toronto’ art, now also for ‘Vancouver’ art. But Huebner relocated to Vancouver in the mid 1980s when it was dominated by provincial art cultures, each with its own micro-history (of Vancouver Pop Art, Vancouver Minimalism, Vancouver Conceptualism, Vancouver Photography.) Curators and critics queued up to promote generations of Jeff Wall clones. There was no critical audience for Huebner’s work, exhibited all the same.

What You Don't Know Won't Hurt You, 1987 was exhibited at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver. Huebner scattered bones across the floor - some real, others exact stainless steel castings. On the walls were large negative and positive photographs of wolves. The sound of wind came from a small, steel stove box. But in Vancouver it read as if it were an unfortunate comedic stage set for a Broadway adaptation of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

Invited to give a lecture on his work at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver, Huebner’s work and attitude excited the students. Yet when a faculty member proposed the idea of offering Huebner a class to teach, the head of the studio program instantly dismissed him as “a fuck-up.”14 This art administrator accurately identified Huebner’s work as a monstrosity, unsettling and unwanted.15

Huebner produced the cast glass sculpture Trust Passion, Risk Death in 1990, at the Pilchuk Glass School in Washington - pouring molten glass into steel molds to produce a transparent, crystalline form like a cut gemstone.16 Huebner characteristically used sophisticated materials (for instance, various types of synthetic resins) in a very crude way (poured directly into a mold dug directly in the earth) or used a very crude material (later in Holland, peat) to produce a sculpture of a fashionable living room set.

However, the recurring theme for Huebner in Vancouver was how to “escape” Vancouver. His isolation in Vancouver was amplified by the physical isolation behind mountain barriers. In the 1990s, Huebner began to spend time in Europe, and he finally abandoned Canada entirely to settle permanently in the Netherlands.

Not all of Huebner’s sculptures are grinders or fryers; some are more like living room appliances, more stereos than toasters. Mean Old World, 1986, is a concrete rocking wheel. Originally installed in a Dutch café, it rocked back and forth, as it sang the Blues. Wishing Well, 1986 - first exhibited at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, Germany - is a large, cast bronze Mercedes Benz emblem set into a block, which conceals a speaker playing the sound of clinking coins.17

A small percentage of an architectural budget is sometimes reserved for public art. It is appropriate that, as spare change, metal sculpture is installed in front of banks. Consider Gerald Ferguson's, 1,000,000 Pennies, 1980: a conical pile of one million freshly-minted, borrowed, Canadian pennies - a sculptural study of the economics of art exhibition and acquisition. Ferguson taught at NSCAD and influence seems to have passed both ways. Compare Ferguson’s, Cast Iron Fruit, 1990 - solid-gray, iron sand castings of plastic fruit, sold by the pound according to the current price of that fruit - with one of Huebner’s unbuilt projects from the mid 1980s - proposed replicas of nuclear bombs to be cast in solid gold on a scale commensurate with the cost of each bomb.18

Huebner’s fictional-based sculpture touched on science fiction. However, whereas conventional kinetic art rooted in Constructivism and De Stijl19 pays homage to technological progress, Huebner’s art owes more to the dilapidated sets of the Dr. Who television series or the post-apocalyptic visions of J.G. Ballard than the technological fantasies of Arthur C. Clarke.

The last I heard of Untitled, 1981 - the 30 centimetre square, concrete block that looks like a tombstone - is that it has run down, no longer works, and is now abandoned in a Halifax backyard. Huebner could only fail to reconcile sculpture with movement. He ended by proving that the restricted movement of kinetic art is indeed a form of stasis and that the real movement of sculpture, just as with architecture, is the slow movement of ruin.20 He also proved that sculpture does not travel well and neither do sculptors. Huebner’s oeuvre still remains largely undocumented, uncollected and scattered, each piece now more isolated, each now better than ever.

Robin Peck, 2012


  1. Geist, Sidney. Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1968. p. 173 (also New York: Viking Press. 1967)
    Read, Herbert. “The Art of Sculpture, The A. W. Mellon Lectures.” The Mirror of Art. Ed. J. Mayne. New York: Doubleday, 1956. p. 88
    “There is an essential contradiction between Sculpture and movement, a statue is something that stands, and the word itself comes from the same Latin root as the word ‘static’.”  back

  2. Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. 1990. pp. 146-147 back

  3. Sir Herbert Read’s theorizing euphemism for non-doctrinaire Surrealists like Brancusi, Gaudier-Brzeska, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth back

  4. “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
    -Michelangelo back

  5. This, according to Huebner. There is of course, no way to verify this. back

  6. Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 1990 pp. 146-147 back

  7. Update both Frankenstein’s monster to the glowing green of The Hulk, and Dracula to the hemophage Ultraviolet. Both are comic book characters and the subjects of recent films. back

  8. from Latin, monstros, monstrum, from the root of moneo, "to warn.” back

  9. Aether is the fifth classical element, supposedly detectable only by hearing. There are invisible Hindu temple sculptures made from aether. However, it is difficult to know if they exist. back

  10. A similar but more humorous work was Untitled, 1983, a two-metre long, steel bed frame filled with electrified springs in the shape of hearts. The elements glow red hot, like a torture apparatus for sizzling sex. These and some other mid-career works are documented in a small exhibition catalogue, Ron Huebner: Need Me Like I Need You. Montreal, Burning Editions, 1993 back

  11. From a personal conversation with Ron Huebner, 1986 back

  12. For instance, compare Huebner’s sheet-lead sleeping bags with a similar use of material in Greer’s sheet-lead “paper airplanes.” back

  13. Even so recent a study as Dr. William Wood’s history of the cataloguing of “the move from sculpture to installation and beyond” does not mention art east of Quebec: (Sculpture and Installation since 1960, The Visual Arts in Canada, The Twentieth Century, edited by Anne Whitelaw, Brian Foss and Sandra Paikowsky, Oxford University Press Canada, 2011). A new book by Garry Neil Kennedy, The Last Art College, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1968-1978 MIT Press April 2012, is a primary source that may partially revise Canadian art history. back

  14. Personal conversation, ECCAD (Emily Carr College of Art and Design) back

  15. This same administrator said that he “want(s) the art college boat to rock, but only gently, so that no one falls out”.  back

  16. His father was a jeweler and at one point, in Vancouver, Huebner considered studying and becoming a registered gemologist. back

  17. “…the money themes are usually off canvas, that makes them all the more profound... today art is all chic venality, cynicism and careering - the sublime if it exists at all is money.” Sami Rosenstock. “Money Themes.” Women Artists News. Winter, 1989 back

  18. Huebner applied for, and did not receive, a Rockefeller Foundation grant to produce this sculpture. back

  19. The kind of art documented in Jack Burnham’s Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Century, (New York: George Braziller. 1968) , itself a work of science fiction, for which Burnham has, unfortunately, apologized. back

  20. The sculptural body in ruin has been the theme of sculpture histories over the course of the 20th twentieth century, including those of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Carl Andre. In the 1930s the history of kinetic art was characterized by Bauhaus educator Lazlo Moholy-Nagy as being a development from carving through modeling to linear construction, and then finally to movement. Recall Carl Andre's similarly disintegrative minimal narrative history of twentieth century sculpture written as: “FORM=STRUCTURE=PLACE”. Waldman, Diane and Carl, (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation: New York, 1970).  back