Juliana Huxtable’s first solo exhibition opened shortly after the release of her first book of poetry, as if to suggest that they are two halves of a diptych. The book, titled Mucus in My Pineal Gland, contains poems from the last five years, some of which first appeared on Huxtable’s Tumblr. Several of these poems are set in New York circa 2010, a world of smelly sidewalks and dark, sweaty clubs; others take place in suburbia, and episodically recount the process of a teen piecing together a persona through discoveries made on internet message boards or in the back of a parked van. The exhibition, titled “A Split during Laughter at the Rally,” was situated in the immediate present. Using imagery from protest marches and fringe political literature, the works on view asked how to live in a world where everything seems stacked against you.
Five posters hung around the gallery, stuck to murkily reflective metal panels with magnets resembling the sloganeering pins on a punk’s jacket. The posters began as paintings that Huxtable made and photographed in her studio before digitally adding text and graphics. They appear as covers of zines exposing conspiracies to keep black Americans in the margins. Invisible Chattel (all works 2017) explains how black men are emasculated by chemtrails and low frequency radio waves, while The Feminist Scam warns of lesbians recruiting girls at school basketball games. On a yellow wall in the gallery’s rear, a sprawling diagram of internet screenshots printed on clear plastic maps out a skinhead fetish for black women. The diagram recalls drawings by Mark Lombardi or Suzanne Treister that illustrate shadowy networks of power, but Huxtable’s inclusion of a Facebook post in which she writes about having unwittingly hooked up with a skinhead makes the creepiness more intimate and more discomforting, by implicating personal desire in systemic violence.
The show’s title video begins with a small band of protesters, most of them black and/or queer, marching down a quiet Brooklyn sidewalk, chanting: “No Trump / No KKK / No fascist USA.” At a break, two of them commiserate about the futility of the protest and laugh. “What’s so fucking funny?” a white guy in the group says. “Don’t you realize all of our lives are on the line right now?” The characters reappear in apartments and empty bars over the course of the roughly twenty-minute video. Topics of conversations and monologues slip from parties to justice and back again, leaving you with a sickening awareness that the tools of liberation, including a good beat that makes the body feel free, are inextricably bound to mechanisms of oppression.
Huxtable’s work often feels like she’s taking her audience along as she retraces the steps of her own intellectual wanderings. This can make for slippery ground. There Are Certain Facts that Cannot Be Disputed, Huxtable’s 2015 performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, jumped around references including samurais and the French baroque, W.E.B. DuBois’s Encyclopedia Africana and GeoCities. The connections were so abundant and rapidly shifting that it was hard to make sense of it all. (The script is in Mucus in My Pineal Gland, awaiting analysis.) But the work in “A Split during Laughter at the Rally” is more cunningly crafted. It takes the connective conspiratorial imagination as its subject, so its method folds in on its message.
Another unifying element is Huxtable’s toothy smile. Some of the magnets holding the posters sport a black-and-white photo of her face where her mouth is exaggerated, big as the Joker’s. The mouth is an organ of pleasure and a vulnerable way into the body. But teeth form a gate that can block entry, and they’re weapons, like the sharp words that can issue from between them. In the video, Huxtable’s mouth, with lips painted electric blue, appears at intervals as a narrator, a chorus of one. Huxtable’s use of her own body and image in her work often leads to the assumption that the work is autobiographical. But the way she twists her face into a grinning mask, and isolates the smile, abstracts the body into something else: a machine for processing information, a position for faith. As her mouth says at the video’s end, not until the characters found “a place from which to posit their actions . . . could they stand in something like protest without laughing.”