whitehot | December 2008, Dig It! New work by David Huffman
Dig It! New work by David Huffman
Patricia Sweetow Gallery
77 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94108
November 6th - December 13th
article by Josephine Zarkovich
Mining heavily his politically active Berkeley upbringing, David Huffman’s current series, Dig It! (A collection of 9 paintings and drawings at Patricia Sweetow Gallery), focuses on the exploits of a group of spacesuit-clad African-Americans identified by the artist as Traumanauts. These works are somewhere between surrealism and a comic book. While engaged in space exploration, the Traumanauts interact with an environment that is both foreign and familiar. Carefully drawn objects float in a sea of turbulent astronomical atmosphere and glitter. There is strange oscillation between the solid and the dream-like. While not featured in every painting, the Traumanauts and their journey remain the central story of the exhibition.
In Funky Soul Stop, the characters march in a circle holding protest signs reading such statements as “Free the Humans” and “Unite in Peace” next door to the record store that gives the piece its name. In the same image a carefully rendered elephant pushes a basketball, while the background is littered with camels, houses, trees made up of some kind of primordial ooze, and basketball courts. Some images are painted while others are collaged into the work. Possibly the most surprising piece is Cosmic Watermelon Pyramid. A small pile of watermelons indicates the ground of the image. The rest is a swirling mass of glitter and green that explodes abstractly across the canvas. It is chaotic and very emotional. In Nomenclature—the most epic work in the collection—the protagonists wander through a world of multi-colored basketball pyramids, elephant graveyards, and fast food signs. Jackson Pollock paints on the ground outside his studio in the far distance. An outline—no really a fully formed person—of a naked woman in red heels, an Oakland Police car, and a liquor store fill the foreground.
Symbols of African-American stereotypes, specifically basketballs and watermelons, are a reoccurring theme in the series. Using these racially coded objects in unexpected situations, Huffman creates a personal visual language that explores the ways in which American racism has affected the popular imagination. Nearly interchangeable in their appearance, the Traumanauts, interact with their environment as explorers or colonizers. Their mission is deliberately ambiguous. Did these voyagers discover basketballs, for example, or did they bring them in an attempt to normalize an otherwise alien world?
Huffman’s use of black-light sensitive paint and a psychedelic aesthetic are a playful contrast to the serious themes presented in Dig It! Repellant imagery is made more seductive by the painting’s phosphorescence. Under the right circumstances these landscapes take on an otherworldly glow, suggesting quite directly, with their familiar urban icons, that conditions in modern America can be just as toxic as those in the outer reaches of space. Yerba Buena Curator Arnold Kemp captures Huffman’s work best when he states: "Huffman’s deceptively cool graphic style is simultaneously messy and rife with angry contradiction. It swings dramatically, emotionally and entropically. In short, it’s so funky that one wonders if those black-blues represent the remains of a disastrous crude oil spill or a decidedly dark spot in Huffman’s emotional relationship to the plane of here." For my part I would also add that the Huffman’s use of pop iconography helps to draw the viewer into the work while still managing to present challenging themes. Overall a very strong exhibition.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief