Juliana Huxtable | Let's skip the essentialism and devour the semantics
Juliana Huxtable, the New York-based artist, author, musician, and, at least this week, a “NOMADIC LORE MACHINE” according to her Twitter, perches gracefully on a metal stool in her sunlit Brooklyn studio. Huxtable, who co-founded Shock Value, a roving, gender-inclusive club night, uses performance, collage, and portraiture to construct avatars for her ever-evolving cache of cultural references, which she refers to as “floating-signifier-concept-chaos.” Research and writing are essential to Huxtable’s artistic practice. She is a voracious consumer and producer of culture and thought, only a fraction of which manifests directly in her work.
When it comes to subculture, Huxtable is both maker and muse. In 2017, she published a book of poetry, Mucus in My Pineal Gland, and co-authored Life, a science-fiction narrative about “two risk analysts returning from retirement to attempt to avert the end of the world,” with artist Hannah Black. Two years earlier, the nightlife icon electrified the New Museum Triennial as the subject of a 3D-printed sculpture by Frank Benson, and was the author of two poems and two self-portraits from the series Universal Crop Tops for All the Self- Canonized Saints of Becoming, for which she occupied the niche extraterrestrial archetype of a Nuwaubian princess. She is now revisiting self-representation in her third solo exhibition, INTERFERTILITY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: SNATCH THE CALF BACK, which recently opened at Reena Spaulings in New York.
Huxtable turns off the music in her studio, confessing that she is in digital production mode. While her studio bears few traces of the show’s pending install, there is still plenty to think about. She points to the sole image on her door, an artist proof of a richly-hued, partially animated self-portrait from her 2018 series of untitled nudes that marked an earlier foray into interspecies relations, the theme of her upcoming exhibition. For Huxtable, the encounter between humans and non-humans outlines the limits of political discourse surrounding possibility and identity. The place where these concerns meet? Furries. “I love the freedom in the way that furries play with identity signifiers. There are punk furries, goth furries, Black nationalist furries,” muses Huxtable, for whom these avatars and characters mirror a desire for speculative social archetypes. In Huxtable’s world, furry subculture is an opportunity to explore the encounter between species, particularly humans and non-humans.
Huxtable has always been interested in depictions of anthropomorphic animals. Her references include old cartoons, prosthetic makeup, and the exaggerated physicality seen in both 3D-animated porn and her cover art. “I think it’s really radical, what [furry imagery] does with bodies. I think it’s much more pansexual, pangender than anything that exists in contemporary western society, at least,” she insists. In one photograph, Huxtable goes bovine, her voluptuous avatar stares into the distance, seemingly lost in fecund, glassy-eyed languor. Hooves turn into heels, hair into horns, freckles into cow spots. Udders take up most of her body, mottled pink and black, as she rests, coyly, in a gentle repose. With this Technicolor image, she presents a “fursona,” destabilizing tropes of race, gender, and desirability with the construction of a new, semi-human form. Put simply, her furry imagery liberates self-imagining, allowing her to play with slippery semiotics just beyond the human body politic: this cow has bedroom eyes.
When asked what is human and non-human, Huxtable turns to the irreconcilable chaos of language, describing the meta-logic that informs her exploration of these topics. If she can skip ahead of the roadblocks set down by conservative ideologies of gender and identity, she can follow them to their dubious ends (usually expressed as societal acceptance of varying degrees of bestiality, gender collapse, and identification for identification’s sake). These issues emerge around trans identities, too. Conservative views on this subject, especially online, usually resort to hyperbole, the artist explains. “Well, I should just identify as a dolphin, or I should just identify as a fish if you’re gonna let ‘men’ be ‘women,’ she says, mimicking and mocking current right-leaning ideologues. “It’s an attempt to smear.” And so, she embraces the fursona, winking at the suggestion that identity has no purpose other than to reify existing social categories. Rather than policing or merely mapping the logic of the opposition, Huxtable deftly deploys the imagery and language it fears most, unpacking the fertile absurdity of these arguments by stretching them to their absolute, improbable limit.
Huxtable has previously worked at the intersection of fetish, flesh, and fashion. Her self-titled exhibition at Project Native Informant in 2017 focused on the cultural cachet of clothing and Nazi symbols in late ‘70s and early ‘80s punk counterculture. In 1978, British white nationalist political party, The National Front, formed “The Punk Front,” a punk-oriented youth organization, as a political strategy to recruit frustrated voters. Huxtable explains the confusion that ensued. “Now that the actual-skinhead, actual-Nazi punks are wearing bomber jackets, if you’re an antifascist, an anti-racist, you wear your bomber jacket inside out.” In fact, she suggests that these futile attempts at holding onto the meaning of fetish objects prompted “a race to nothingness” that ended when antifascists, who refused British respectability politics, could no longer claim meaningful separation from the aesthetics of white supremacy.
This emptying of would-be political signifiers into the realm of the fashion adjacent “foreshadowed the moment where we are now, post-slippage,” contends Huxtable. In that same exhibition, Huxtable showed a series of photographs, titled TBT, featuring closely-cropped images of an anonymous Black man with several tattoos. Gelled lights obscure his skin tone. The images center carefully placed phrases with contradictory agendas: “Black Lives Matter” and “ANTI Anti-Fa,” or anti- anti-fascist, a term used by the alt-right to malign the so-called Far-Left. Huxtable neatly unearths a parallel, illuminating the possibility that, perhaps, “a tattoo essentialism is to a subcultural identity what genital essentialism is to a gender ideology.” She begins with the fact that intersex people exist. “The more that people know that, the more that trans people can modify their bodies, the more that technology enables artifice to effectively mimic what is considered to be a biological body,” the further the arbitrary goalpost of measuring “authenticity” moves. Now, Huxtable sees trolls resorting to chromosomes in order to ground their antagonism. “You can see the evolution happening. Now they’re like, ‘You can’t change your DNA! You can’t change your chromosomes!’ The metric for ‘realness’ is moving.”
Huxtable’s self-portraits loosely wield the metrics of the real. A seductive collage of the artist as bat reads, “connect bat ears to wing of post-punk eye.” The bat ear in question is but a shadowy illustrated outline, punctured twice by a double helix piercing. Another rupture follows: “create / draw 3 neovaginas... hysterical / multiplicitous invagination.” Each instruction functions as a sparsely annotated roadmap for both “post-slippage” inquiry and the creation of a fursona. Despite the “instructions,” traces of the ineffable permeate each collage. Her fursonas pose for the camera. They court the pornographic, invite soft-core anthropomorphic projection, and uphold scant fidelity to mammalian constraint. When fashion fails to signify, we can move to tattoos, to piercings, and into the body. When gender fails, where do we go? Essentialism, once bound by the acrid realms of flesh, desire, and aspiration, is now quantum. Huxtable, who prefers to avoid essentialism altogether, nonetheless emphasizes the small gain evidenced by this shift in essentialist gender rubrics. “I don’t think that moving an essentialism from a genital essentialism to an atomic essentialism is going to be a disservice to most people. Because even on a chromosomal level there are variations.”
For Huxtable, her family has been a primary model for thinking about the ceiling of meaning, and of language in particular. She was raised in Texas in a conservative Baptist household. After a period of estrangement, she now approaches her kin with the aim of building shared frameworks of mutual understanding. “I can’t come at my grandfather screaming at him about pronouns. If I want to have a relationship with my grandfather, I, as someone who knows him, have to engage with him on certain terms.” Language, she thinks, requires patience. “My grandfather has no apparatus for navigating my experience. And so, for me to insist that language just match up with reality is an absurd gesture, even if noble, or ethically, totally warranted.”
The desire for culture to sync with critical conversation is at the center of many social spaces today, but it’s especially present online, where Huxtable’s language moves faster than most. Her Twitter name now reads “YUNG LIMINAL CRISIS AKA ABJECTION DOLL *SOBBIN*,” and will likely change again by the time this is printed. Referencing the rapid expansion of queer discourse around gender, she notes that “the rate at which language becomes more complex is outpacing the social, political, and ethical apparatuses that enable that development to be translated outside of language.” While this is great for people that are already on the same page, she stresses the unfortunate downside of this progress, which is that most people are out of touch with each other. “And that’s one of the things that frustrates me particularly about confessional-mode, collective identification politics,” she confides. “Because for me, saying ‘trans women are women’ to people that fundamentally don’t believe that is not going to do anything to make my life better.” Language, she emphasizes, can be alienating. “I’ve had to exist under multiple monikers, pronouns, and names that are supposed to signify some relationship to my body, as I’m having a completely different experience.”
Interactions with her family have singularly shaped how she imagines the intersection of “political demands, political movements, and language.” “Now I’m at the point where my cousins totally get it. I was just in Texas with my cousin, and we’re at the point now—which is the most beautiful place to be—where I give language. I offer language and that language is immediately picked up and fed back to me. And we’re learning to see each other,” she continues, emphasizing the progress wrought by her effort. “And we’re complexifying our language amongst each other,” she says, before offering perspective on the bigger picture. Barring violent situations, patience, she suggests, can exist as a radical bridge between language and reality. “I think more patience is required, I think more nuance is required, and I also feel that sometimes things are just messy. And it’s okay for them to be messy. You have to allow for that mess, both within your own sphere and other spheres.”
The universe of INTERFERTILITY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: SNATCH THE CALF BACK is a carefully calibrated fever dream. While both of Huxtable’s previous solo exhibitions foregrounded collective meaning-making, this body of work activates the same fluid questions within a heterotopia of the self. What Huxtable calls chaos feels more like a rupture caused by her uncanny ability to illustrate speculative thought, and cannibalize the bizarre, contemporary atomization of discourse around meaning and its afterlife.
INTERFERTILITY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: SNATCH THE CALF BACK runs until October 27th, 2019, at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, 165 East Broadway, New York, NY 10002