Jibade-Khalil Huffman, FIGURATION @Downstairs Projects

JTF (just the facts): Two single-channel color videos with sound,  one 23 minutes long and the other 20 minutes long; one photo-based work consisting of layered inkjet prints on clear Mylar, 40×30 inches; and one limited-edition zine containing a poem by the artist. Each video is available in an edition of 3+2AP, the zine is available in an edition of 50, and the photo-based work is unique. The show is open by appointment only. (Installation shots below)

Comments/Context: Last month, a New York Times article reported on the number of small and midsize galleries that have closed since the beginning of the year, unable to compete in a market increasingly dominated by big-box operations like David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth; unable to afford the art fair booths that are ever more essential to success; and unable to attract collectors willing to gamble on emerging artists. Some see this as yet another symptom of rising income inequality; some see it as part of a cycle that’s repeated itself many times in the New York art world. And some, like artists Ruby Sky Stiler and Daniel Gordon, have taken matters into their own hands.

Since October of last year, Stiler and Gordon have run an exhibition space called Downstairs Projects out of a small basement room in the building that houses their studios, showing the work of friends and peers that they admire. “The creation of the project space came out of our desire to give opportunities to artists, without the concerns of having a commercial gallery space,” says Stiler.

An exhibition of work by Los Angeles-based poet and artist Jibade-Khalil Huffman now on view at Downstairs is a felicitous pairing of art and place. In two videos, a photo piece, and a limited-edition zine, words, images, and space work together in ways both disarming and disturbing. Some histories and narratives can only be told through improvisation and assemblage, and Huffman employs both, brilliantly and across all mediums, in the improvised surroundings of Stiler and Gordon’s project room.

The lone photo work consists of sheets of transparent plastic, each printed with fragmentary found picture. Layered one over the other, images of a bathroom scale, a sofa, a TV, a boxed set of jazz albums, a corner cabinet, a couple of ceramic figurines, and other accouterments of domestic life come together into a nearly abstract composition. Overlaying the whole are the words: A TATTOO OF HARRIET TUBMAN’S FACE WITH A TATTOO OF YOUR FACE ON HARRIET TUBMAN’S FACE ON YOUR FACE. The meaning of the work is obscure, though there’s been recent speculation about whether or not the planned replacement of Andrew Jackson’s image with Tubman’s on the $20 bill will ever really happen.

Projected on a nearby wall, its soundtrack blaring into the room, is the single-channel video Figuration (A), 2017, a stream of TV clips—at times run backwards, doubled, or layered over other clips—evoking the recent past of the 1980s and ’90s (a period of time that happens to coincide with Huffman’s own childhood, though this may or may not be pertinent). The video opens with the soothing voice of a hypnotist; it ends with gospel singer Vanessa Bell Armstrong singing “Shine on Me,” the theme song for the 1980s African American sitcom Amen. In between, bits of movie dialogue are followed by their edited-for-TV versions. (From Scarface: “Where’d you get that beauty scar, tough guy? Eating pussy?”/“Where’d you get that beauty scar, tough guy? Eating pineapple?”) Scenes from Amen, a Bubblicious Bubble Gum ad in which a boy’s bubble gum bubble lifts him over a city and into space, and a lottery drawing are intercut with more chaotic sequences: the rapper Tupac Shakur giving an interview on a DC street, the aftermath of a car accident, a man going berserk in a deli.

The suppressed anxiety and simmering violence underlying the action in Figuration (A) is given full expression in First Person Shooter (2016), a montage of computer-generated animations featuring running people, explosions, and car crashes. Here, a low-resolution and uncertain digital present replaces Figuration (A)’s analog past. Barriers dissolve only to reform; sunset-pink clouds morph into pea green toxic mists; and Coke cans become oil drums. Every so often, snippets of text, vaguely ominous, appear on screen. “TERMS AND CONDITIONS” reads one. “BUNDLED IN” reads another. At times it appears that this sequence of events may be the consensual nightmare of a group of young, flesh-and-blood characters, who periodically doze off only to wake with a gasp.

“Sometimes I think I bruise myself/in my sleep/so that I have a head start on them,” reads one of the lines in Huffman’s long poem “Mantra,” in the zine printed for this show. Though his writing and art clearly address the politics of race in America, Huffman resists obviousness at every turn, instead meeting society’s takebacks, double standards, and mixed signals with some taking back, doubling, and mixing of his own.

Collector’s POV: The works in the show are priced as follows. The two videos First Person Shooter and Figuration (A) are $4000 and $3000 respectively, and the inkjet work Rubric (A Tattoo of Harriet Tubman’s Face with A Tattoo of Your Face on Harriet Tubman’s Face on Your Face) (For Morgan Parker) is $2500. Huffman’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up. Huffman is represented by Anat Egbi in Los Angeles (here).

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