The works in Oakland-based painter David Huffman’s show “Floating World” mark a significant conceptual and esthetic shift in the artist’s recent production. Known as a provocateur, Huffman creates dense psychological worlds that meld social commentary and science fiction. His paintings operate between figuration and abstraction, between narrative and pure formalism.

Since the beginning of his career in the mid-1990s, Huffman has explored themes of politics, race, power and conflict, often utilizing controversial imagery. Watermelons, pyramids, UFOs and his distinctive astronaut minstrel figures (“traumanauts”) populate his paintings and make powerful allusions to African-American life. These humanoid explorers, cartoonish in their rendering, are poignant symbols for cultural homelessness, discovery and the plight of black folks as they negotiate an embattled past and an uncertain future.

Huffman’s latest offerings do not feature any traumanauts but continue to delve into the politics of race through an increasingly subtle yet potent iconography, which has evolved over several bodies of work. Deep space, which once served as a formal backdrop for his figural exploits, is now strikingly foregrounded in five works on canvas and one on paper. Migration (2010) is a large mixed-medium painting of complex tonal washes in black and gray. Expressionist splatters and drips as well as glitter enhance its otherworldly character. Affixed to the dark ground are colorful circles (in reds, oranges, browns and grays) that upon closer inspection are revealed to be basketballs.

The basketball holds real and metaphorical significance in black culture and has been an enduring trope in African-American art. Huffman’s b-ball abstractions have a melancholic grace. At first glance, the black, brown and gray Seeding (2011, 60 by 72 inches) resembles the cosmic expanses of his earlier work, but the densely conglomerated circular forms are often basketballs, in various muted tones. The complexity of darkness as an overdetermined metaphor for racial identity has been a leitmotif in Huffman’s work for some time. With the addition of the basketball imagery, the already layered tonal ranges of blacks and browns take on greater depth, both formally and conceptually.

It is notable that Huffman has distilled his engagement with the politics of identity down to the basketball, a singular cipher for the struggles and victories of black social uplift. The maturity evident in this recent show is quite stirring. Ultimately, Huffman’s paintings signify the ability to envision black life as a beautiful abstraction with limitless possibilities.


Photo: David Huffman: Migration, 2010, mixed mediums on canvas, 72 by 60 inches; at Patricia Sweetow.