2.4 / Review

Huckleberry Finn

By Matthew Harrison Tedford October 21, 2010

Like a haphazardly written book report, Huckleberry Finn at the California College of the Arts’ Wattis Institute contains a hodgepodge of material related in one way or another to the eponymous novel. Curator Jens Hoffmann populated his show with artworks, ephemera, and films that, either directly or tenuously, touch upon the themes of Mark Twain’s antebellum satire. The all-encompassing nature of the curatorial vision, however, suggests a superficial reading of the novel.

The curatorial literature states that the first-floor galleries are meant to introduce the viewer to Twain, the novel, and life on the Mississippi River at the time. A long 1862 scroll map of the Mississippi River alongside a replica of the Robert E. Lee steamboat, known as the “Monarch of the Mississippi,” speak to life on the river mid-century. But the first floor’s approach to race and slavery is problematic. Confusingly, this floor exhibits a large-scale Hank Willis Thomas portrait of Uncle Ben, of Uncle Ben’s rice, looming over Betye Saar’s famous 1972 Aunt Jemima assemblage.

Betye Saar. The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972; mixed media; 11 3/4 x 8 x 2 3/4 in. Courtesy the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is a powerful critique of racist kitsch that subversively appropriates the mammy icon. It is entirely appropriate for the rifle-bearing Jemima to hang just inches from After 61 Years of Service, I Ben, Promoted (2008). In a simultaneously subtle and obvious manner, Willis Thomas targets the ad campaign that promoted the mascot to chairman of the board after sixty-one years of servitude. While the two works are both powerful and significant statements in their own right, their inclusion in the show puzzles. The depiction of black Americans in popular culture can certainly be connected to Twain’s novel, but Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are not products of antebellum Mississippi, or even antebellum America. That these product icons are both black, and that they are on one end of a cultural lineage, does not mean that the works speak to the life of a plantation slave.

The upper gallery is said to explore “Jim’s turbulent quest for freedom.” The first work a viewer encounters when she exits the elevator is Andy Warhol’s Birmingham Race Riot (1964).

Andy Warhol. Birmingham Race Riot, 1964; screenprint; 20 1/8 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts.

The infamous black-and-white screenprint documents Bull Connor’s men and dogs attacking anti-segregation partisans. Deeper inside the gallery dwells an antebellum silhouette scene by Kara Walker titled Nigger Huck Finn Pursues Happiness Beyond the Narrow Constraints of Your Overdetermined Thesis on Freedom—Drawn and Quartered by Mister Kara Walkerberry with Condolences to the Author (2010). Typical of her work, the wall is an uncomfortable and gruesome beauty. The scene reimagines Huck Finn as a sexualized black boy terrorizing Southern belles. This piece, commissioned specifically for the exhibition, is flanked by and interspersed with small, almost unnoticed watercolor paintings less customary of the artist. A closer look at one of these unassuming and softly colored paintings reveals a naked white Huck lying cavalierly—if not a bit annoyed—on a raft while Jim mounts him from the rear. Like much of Walker’s oeuvre, these scenes forcefully highlight the oft-ignored sexual dimension of race relations in the antebellum South. Hanging nearby from the ceiling is Abraham Cruzvillegas’ Jim Beam (2010), a raft made of found wood and jugs. A fishing pole juts from the raft with a banana bunch on the other end, hanging just below the viewer’s eyes. Also commissioned for the exhibition, the sculpture re-creates one of the more evocative symbols from the novel and river life. Both works engage directly with the gallery’s theme, and do so in imaginative and creative ways.

Yet Walker’s and Cruzvillegas’ 1830s is preempted by Warhol’s 1960s. Immediately to the left of the Birmingham epigraph hangs David Hammons 1990 African-American Flag, an American flag colored red, black, and green—the colors of the Pan-African flag. Hanging nearby are two 1968 portraits of Black Panther Party members by Ruth-Marion Baruch, and pinned to the opposite wall of the gallery are inkjet prints of photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X from popular media. The inclusion of these works in a gallery specifically themed around Jim’s struggle for freedom conflates all black struggles with Jim’s. No doubt, there is historical continuity between antebellum and Civil Rights era struggles for freedom. Jim’s history is the history of Malcolm X or David Hammons. But not all struggles are the same, even if the races are. Huckleberry Finn is not billed as an exploration of all black struggles in America; it is specifically anchored by a particular text and a particular time.

Anchoring the exhibition so specifically, yet aiming so widely with the content, results in a show that is more of a collection of famous names and pieces. Unsurprisingly, the works commissioned for this exhibition cohere with its intended goals the best; they offer modern-day interpretations and reflections of Huckleberry Finn’s subject matter, which is the novel of the same name. Many of the others turn the show into a vague and amorphous statement about race and freedom that prohibits a rich contextualization of a single text. Hoffmann owes both history and the novel a level of nuance and depth that the exhibition lacks.


Huckleberry Finn is on view at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts at CCA, in San Francisco, through December 11, 2010.

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