Jibade-Khalil Huffman makes work that exists in an instant then disappears, leaving the viewer with a visual impression and sometimes little else.
The personality of the artist and writer is opposite of his works, which tend to be paradoxically mysterious, oddly familiar and yet completely unknown. These are not ways to describe Huffman: He has a boyish, friendly handsomeness in the way of Jimmy Stewart, a refined profile, and expressive eyes. He is a joyful talker of hands and inscrutable expert on furrowed brow thoughtfulness. While talking with him it's easy to imagine you're watching a contemporary Frank Capra character study.
The Form, as he refers to any completed body of his own work, can take many mediums. In the case of his USC MFA thesis show, "Niagara," those mediums included vintage slides, a projected life size GIF of Molly Ringwald set to a club kid beat and various sculptural elements. The Form is more than the container; the Form is the gesture, waiting for the viewer to project a narrative.
His first solo show since graduating from Roski last spring opens at Samuel Freeman September 7, and continues the themes he began exploring while at USC; Perception, experience, effect. "The pieces are very much like a flight of the mind. Or, the leaps in logic that occur as we move through life," he explains thoughtfully, his chin resting in hand.
"For this show I'm making walls that are six, eight feet tall and along the walls will be other pieces of dry wall which I'm putting these very flat works that almost look like wall paper, and then projecting a two channel video onto. What I'm working on now are pieces that are sort of tightly wound or, namely Form over content."
Huffman seems to have been slowly building to this moment in his oeuvre. Early shows, such as a PS1 performance where he read his poems during a slideshow of carefully arranged photographs, projected in the sculpture garden, were early practices in what has become an oftentimes psychedelic experience of sound, image and words.
Huffman isn't overly concerned with the quality of the photos taken or used, rather what the image can evoke when paired with text. In some ways, Huffman's work can be paralleled with that of William S. Burroughs, whose experiments with the fold in method and collage inspired the experimental texts "Nova Express" and "The Ticket That Exploded." Burroughs texts remain small perfect meditations on how far the narrative can be stretched and still hold meaning. Huffman's pieces take it a step further. A lack of linear text does not concede a lack story rather it strips the story to its barest parts: A sailboat on water; a sheet of negatives; pictures from what could be a forgotten family album, found at a thrift store; images of vintage computers ghostlike on double negatives.
This is work about the familiar, even if the familiar is imagined or engineered. Things crumble, age and yellow. But narrative is always new, always personal. Remember, Huffman is a poet too. Not in the abstract, experimental, sense, but in the classical literary one. This could be one reason why what is he is doing feels much fresher to the world of letters, this is a rejection of letting words do their job. Here language is often removed, or parceled out in small doses. The word APPLESAUCE, for instance, shines in a butter rich yellow above what appears to be a black theater door. Or the short phrase "yesterday our love went into a coma" typed in bright white Karaoke like lyrics across a blue TV screen, a microphone attached and sitting on the ground.
His two books of poetry, "19 Names for Our Band," published by Fence books, and "James Brown Is Dead," published by Future Plan, are an obvious example of his interest in rhythm and meter. Translating that meter into the physical plane seems to be something he is also invested in achieving.
Huffman also has a Masters in poetry from Brown and could have easily stayed in the world of poetry where he was doing quite well, but much like his work, he can't seem to settle too long in authentic nostalgia.
"I think of myself primarily as a writer. I'm also an artist, obviously, but my work is words and images."
Where Are the Negroes in Hartford, Connecticut?
When we wake up
there is a banner
for the National
Rifle Association hanging
in our backyard
the children are gathered
and our neighbor
apologizes for late
beginning his remarks:
where are the negroes
in Hartford, Connecticut, where
is a crossing guard
when you are required
to hear the instruction:
if you are ready
you should clap
if you are standing
you should sit down
attached to an object
as a prize for
who can fastest
where they are there
what is and
The Form is also the message, on the surface, initially. As with his 2012 Machine Project show, "Lake Overturn," a live performance told through a location scout played by actress Claire Titleman. Stumbling through an emotional disaster as if its physical geography, Titleman tells her story using footage from big budget Hollywood Disaster films.
Seeking out a place to film new fictitious memories, a scout's job is to replicate the familiar or that which will serve the function geographically to a preconceived story. The atmosphere is constructed but the film is real.
Telling stories without words "Gif," the Molly video from "Niagara," is another example of this type of blank canvas. The image is meaningful in a sculptural sense, but for whom?
As well, "Gif" offers the repeated gesture. There is an unspoken sense that if something occurs enough times it leaves a bit of itself in the spot inhabited. What if we are that spot? What if memory is something that has less value as an individualized experience than one of a collective mindset, just as Philip K. Dick imagined in "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," and later Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner?" Who are memories for? What is their function?
The theatrical nature of Huffman's work isn't accidental. Originally a film major at Bard, his mind is that of the storyteller and director. As an arranger of atmosphere, he drops us in, we finish the action. These are pieces about the age-old human condition within our modern social structure. Huffman is equal parts Cindy Sherman as William Faulkner.
He also slips between titles as easily as his work can slip between genres. Huffman resists the calling card of artist, but admits he's not exactly just a writer. He's also not excited to discuss being pegged down within political or academic structures.
On the surface, he is affable. He is a comforting poet; one who wants to make you feel his presence of concern, offering a glass of water, or to switch chairs, open a window for air.
He is also cutting in such a soft unassuming way that you're half way into the next conversation before you realize he's corrected and thrown aside your theory of his work. A quiet devil's advocate who before you realize has converted you to his version of what each piece means. Because one thing is certain, he's not going to spell it out otherwise. The works are open ended with very little conceptual direction. What remains is the fact that they transfix and engage, breathtaking and curious.
The viewer is left wondering about the works: Is this meaningless? Is this philosophical? Political? Hypnotic? Until you've thought about each way, it could mean something, and then suddenly, it does.
Like lyrics you've memorized wrong only to discover the truth later. The correct lyrics are less personal than your own, and you refer melodically to that piece of music for the rest of time, as something that exists with individual meaning just for you.
Huffman is interested in these moments.
A vast majority of Huffman's pieces are warm and colorful, alternating between neons and pastels, making the selected and highlighted words become heightened and romantic. One is left with a thirst to know more. These are works about individual identity, photographic memories and our personal histories with one another against a rapidly changing modern backdrop. The antiquity of the found slides highlight what computers, iPhones and other new ways of documenting our lives, are losing to a culture of instantaneous and throwaway moments; a future where a carousel is no longer needed to turn back time.
"I've been deliberately, not arbitrarily making these pieces about memory flights," he says, "there is a real passing to that, but this work is really more about telling stories, but in a way that's more about investigating the foreground."
Huffman seems to suggest that the mechanics of memory-making, and the ritual of a shared family archive, has transformed. Like a GIF, our memories loop, focused on the minutiae of ephemeral experiences: John Hughes movies on VHS, and a Molly Ringwald youth; an after-school special, watched when your mother was running late; "Mr. Belvedere" on the fuzzy TV; a family album on a dusty coffee table; a picture of a sailboat in a restaurant that you will never forget, that you saw on a vacation, as young child, watching mist roll in from a seagull covered sky.
Repeating a moment, forever in motion and always dancing in the past.
Top Image: By Jibade-Khalil Huffman.
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