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Issue 137 March 2011 RSS

Huckleberry Finn

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, USA

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Coinciding nicely with the publication of Mark Twain’s autobiography – which, according to his instructions, wasn’t published until 100 years after his death – ‘Huckleberry Finn’ took the 1884 novel as the basis for an investigation into the history of racism in America. Following on from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (2008) and ‘Moby-Dick’ (2009), it was the last in a trilogy of allegorical exhibitions curated by Jens Hoffmann, all of which were based on 19th- and early 20th-century American novels. Here, the CCA Wattis director once again created part historical society, part documenta-style mise-en-scène. Works by contemporary artists commingled in charmingly disarming groupings with historical material and older works of art relating to both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and its sociopolitical context. These varied elements were visually tied together by the exhibition design, which featured text panels in an Old American West-style typeface and a ‘frontispiece’ of white-on-green swamp grass stenciled on the entryway wall of each gallery (or ‘chapter’ ). The graphics mimicked the novel’s original illustrations by Edward W. Kemble, whose drawings were also on view.
In addition to all manner of works by 36 artists – including Abraham Cruzvillegas, Emory Douglas, Glenn Ligon, Betye Saar and Kara Walker – there was a raft of historical information. Visitors learnt about the novel’s mixed reception, the geography of the Mississippi Valley (from 19th-century lithographs and a four-metre-wide map), and just how shockingly derisive attitudes were towards blacks in the antebellum South (via political cartoons and toys with black men as bowling pins). You discovered that there were abolitionist coins and that Thomas Edison filmed Mark Twain using a movie camera of his own invention. The paintings of early African-American artists, such as Clementine Hunter and Horace Pippin, offered eyewitness accounts of Southern life after emancipation.
Inserted into this fascinating and idiosyncratic assemblage that picked its way through African-American experience, was contemporary art – the same art that glitters at international art fairs – giving artists a stake in nothing less than democratic ideals of equality, freedom of expression and self-determination on par with literary icons. For their part, the 19 contemporary artists, who produced mostly specially commissioned work, tended to pick up on Twain’s satirical tone. Kirsten Pieroth literally ‘preserved’ the novel by pouring a boiled copy of it into a jam jar (Untitled [Essence], 2010). Rodney Graham’s Huckleberry Finn: Portraits from Memory Done in My Library Primarily in the Cubist Style (2010) comprises a pair of collaged drawings on 19th-century book covers. In one, a prominent black cut-out stands for Jim, the runaway slave who becomes Huck’s cohort and friend; in the other, Huck has a long rectangular cut-out for a nose à la African masks, the Cubists’ source material. Graham reminds us what European artists were preoccupied with at the same time social strife was tearing America apart, prompting the question: is the artistic avant-garde removed from society or does it indirectly participate in perceptual and attitudinal shifts that ultimately have political consequences? In Simon Fujiwara’s farcical television talkshow, Artists’ Book Club: Hakuruberri Fuin no Monogatari (2010), as the featured guest the artist plays a caricature of himself, gushing about the character Jim. Explaining why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been so influential to his work, the schoolboyish artist recounts – with an exaggerated accent and earnestness – tales of his personal and family history in relation to Japanese cultural repression. The novel, too, is full of characters who assume disguises and other acts of deception: at different points Huck disguises himself as a girl, pretends to be his brother, and stages his own death – not unlike Twain himself, whose fictitious 1902 obituary comprised one of the historical displays.
Other artists found inspiration in scenes that tapped into their own artistic idioms. Allison Smith’s mise-en-tableau is based on descriptions of what Huck and Jim scavenge from a house – unmoored by flooding – they find floating down the river. Collected during her own trip down the Mississippi, the found or fabricated objects – such as a bonnet sewn in camouflage twill, a bundle of hand-dipped candles resembling dynamite – portray handicrafts and home life of the antebellum period as well as the undertone of violence. As if pulled from the mouldy basements of yesteryear, Kristen Morgin’s uncannily convincing painted clay facsimiles of mangled comic books and toys are all Huck-, escape- or race-related; a copy of The Gingerbread Man and a wooden toy slave ship called Dixie, for example. Jason Meadows’ sculptural installation, Huck and Jim Meet the Wheel (2010), in which large cartoon characters – from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip and the animated series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972–85) – play on rustic wooden props, calls attention to stereotyping’s insidious beginnings in children’s entertainment.
Less than halfway through, the curatorial focus moved onto other territories and times, especially the Depression and Civil Rights eras. There was a lot of Works Progress Administration material – from Dorothea Lange’s photographs of sharecroppers in the 1930s to Pare Lorentz’s 1938 documentary about the Mississippi Valley in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl (The River, 1938). Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X made appearances via newspaper clippings, while Andy Warhol’s 1964 ‘Race Riots’ screenprints and Ruth-Marion Baruch’s sympathetic portraits of Black Panthers completed the picture of the 1960s. Corresponding selections offered a grab-bag of things race-related (or that might be construed as such), such as Félix González-Torres’s stacked sheets of black-bordered white paper (“Untitled” [The End], 1990). Drifting too far from its source material, ‘Huckleberry Finn’ devolved into a generic, if imaginative, exposé of the African-American struggle. According to the catalogue’s prologue, issued ‘by order of the curator’: ‘PERSONS ATTEMPTING TO FIND A MOTIVE IN THIS NARRATIVE WILL BE PROSECUTED.’ This was, of course, just one of the flourishes typical of Hoffmann’s uniquely creative approach, but I had to wonder if he really meant it.

Melissa E. Feldman

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Issue 137, March 2011

by Melissa E. Feldman

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