On Juliana Huxtable, A Split During Laughter at the Rally, at Reena Spaulings, New York

— Christian Haye

Juliana Huxtable, Untitled (Wall), 2017, paint and images printed on vellum, dimensions vary

Juliana Huxtable, Untitled (Wall), 2017, paint and images printed on vellum, dimensions vary

I posted a (not) joke on my Facebook wall the other day. Q: What is the difference between identity politics and politics? A: Politics is about white cisgender, abled people, and identity politics is everything else. An artificial divide has been constructed wherein those who feel that class issues are at the heart of our present divide find themselves on the opposite side of any other argument. The fealty with which this class argument is repeated, or derided, is supposed to be some point of demarcation that, in fact, is basic and boring. That there are numerous points where supposedly divergent sides intersect is conveniently ignored for the sake of continuing argument. Within the art sphere, the general problem is that the places which incubate art are simultaneously accelerants of income inequality. Our present is a strange space where the blossoms of income inequality serve to benefit the visual arts above most other forms of cultural production. This effectively problematizes all forms of politics within visual arts spaces. In a debut gallery exhibition, Juliana Huxtable shows how this problem is not insurmountable.

The exhibition, A Split During Laughter at the Rally is an acute self-portrait of an artist and the times that artist is living in/through. Huxtable has redesigned the gallery with reflective, seemingly opaque surfaces on which are attached stickers, magnets, and posters which evoke, purposefully, Emory Douglas—the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. Douglas, now 74, has enjoyed a career resurgence as the global spirit of political revolution has informed the conversation around the nexus of social justice and cultural production. This strain in art making has never disappeared and a previous generation of American artists, like Daniel Joseph Martinez, Andrea Bowers, and Sam Durant, have used these modes of thinking to great effect in conceptual art praxis. Indeed, Durant edited a monograph of Douglas’s work a decade ago (Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, Rizzoli, 2007). Huxtable’s posters, meanwhile, are mostly centered around a graphic in an agitprop style and festooned with varied words or phrases of what could be dispatches from an Afro-futurist manifesto. “Invisible Chattel,” headlines one, subtitled: “secret units of control and profit—imperceptible machinations enslave at a cellular level suppressing the amino acids of higher consciousness.” Another poster reads: “The War on Proof.” Yet another has a spooky cursive title which exclaims: “Transsexual Empire!!!” and is super-scripted by a factoid: the number of Swedish children wanting to change genders doubles each year. The poster-like quality of these works is simultaneously negated and reinforced with stickers that could be buttons sporting slogans like “Terf Wars” [1] done in the Star Wars font, or, “This Is What A Wikipedia Warrior Looks Like” and “The American Sheeple.” Some stickers feature transmogrified gender icons. But their most repeated image is of Huxtable’s own face Photoshopped into the Internet-familiar icon of trollface/coolface merged with a variation of the Guy Fawkes/Anonymous mask.

A wall drawing, Untitled (Wall), 2017, takes Facebook screen grabs and attempts to tell the story of black power clashing sexually with white skinheads, done in a way that is reminiscent of the illuminating drawings of Mark Lombardi. Personally, I was let down by this conversation, since the idea of blackness constantly being defined by an opposing whiteness is overstated to the point of stifling any other possibilities of defining either.    

Huxtable is an embodiment of the personal being political—an edict much repeated in the culture wars of the 1980s. Indeed, her entire exhibition seems like a meditation on A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway’s 1984 classic. As a black trans woman, Huxtable is aware of where her body serves as a focal point for this discussion but she has no interest in letting the conversation of this exhibition rest there. The most you see of an unadorned Huxtable is her mouth narrating the video installed within the exhibition, the title of which, A Split During Laughter at the Rally, 2017, is also the title of the show. The 21-minute video is a montage of a faux rally down some decidedly unpopulated streets in the artist/ hipster enclave of Bushwick, Brooklyn.  The protesters, diverse and gender non-conforming, gather to shout the unfortunately familiar chants—No Trump/ No KKK/ No Fascist USA—which are followed up by a side conversation: “These chants are so lame.” Intercut with the protest are confessional takes where participants speak intimate banalities to the camera. “Obviously because I wanted to change the world.” “What’s so funny? All of our lives are on the line!” “I used to pay attention to court decisions and legislation, but where did that get me?” Huxtable herself is also intercut with this footage, the close-up on her mouth invoking the DJ character from the 1979 film The Warriors (played by Lynne Thigpen and voiced by Pat Floyd), who provided an overarching narrative for the progress of gang members through New York City, in a direct appeal to the listener/viewer. Huxtable’s video mocks the efficacy of protest as tool while also embracing it. The inhabitants of its world are not multigenerational and seem to relay a feeling that their outrage is de rigueur as opposed to inspired. This is where the feeling that the quasi homage to Emory Douglas elsewhere in the exhibition may also be satire.

Haraway urged the construction of an ideal and identity that reaches beyond the narrowing confines of historical binaries towards a more radical understanding, where one chooses one’s own affinities. In Huxtable’s view the possibilities and problems of a generation come into full purview. The digital age provides endless amounts of information, yet gives equal weight to all of that information. Likewise, in A Split During Laughter at the Rally, the possibilities are indeed infinite—and stretch out towards a bezel-free horizon. But they also remind one that depth is now measured in terms bearing the prefix “micro.”

  1. [1] Terf : Trans-exclusionary radical feminism.