Critics’ Picks

Kara Walker, The Nigger Huck Finn Pursues Happiness Beyond the Narrow Constraints of your Overdetermined Thesis on Freedom—Drawn and Quartered by Mister Kara Walkerberry, with Condolences to The Authors, 2010, cut paper and eight framed gouache paintings, dimensions variable.

Kara Walker, The Nigger Huck Finn Pursues Happiness Beyond the Narrow Constraints of your Overdetermined Thesis on Freedom—Drawn and Quartered by Mister Kara Walkerberry, with Condolences to The Authors, 2010, cut paper and eight framed gouache paintings, dimensions variable.

San Francisco

“Huckleberry Finn”

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art
1111 8th Street
September 28–December 11, 2010

The third and final installment in the Wattis’s trilogy of exhibitions inspired by iconic American novels (preceded by “The Wizard of Oz” in 2008 and “Moby Dick” in 2009), “Huckleberry Finn” is as engaging and controversial as its source material. No curator is noted in the gallery’s wall text, yet the project bears the unmistakable imprint of Wattis director Jens Hoffmann, who trumps Mark Twain as the impresario behind the curtain. The show offers American-style portions of material, a sort of all-you-can-eat buffet where viewers can piece together a narrative from Hoffmann’s characteristically expansive range of historical artifacts, documents, silent film footage (including Twain having tea with his daughters), preexisting modern and contemporary works (notably by Andy Warhol, David Hammons, and Glenn Ligon), and fourteen new commissions (standouts include Edgar Arceneaux, Geoffrey Farmer, and Ellen Gallagher).

The latter are, not surprisingly, the most satisfying, as these artists directly respond to the novel. Kara Walker offers a sweeping cut-paper work, whose title, Nigger Huck Finn Pursues Happiness Beyond the Narrow Constraints of Your Overdetermined Thesis on Freedom—Drawn and Quartered by Mister Kara Walkerberry with Condolences to the Author (all works cited, 2010), encapsulates one semisnarky thread of the exhibition’s curatorial direction, while Simon Fujiwara’s pointedly hilarious video Artists’ Book Club: Hukuruberri Fuin no Monogatari adds international scope as it channels troublesome, eroticized cultural stereotypes. The exhibition may teeter on its own oversimplifications: Displays of slave ownership documents, photographs and news clippings on Malcolm X and MLK, and Emory Douglas’s graphics for the Black Panther––apparently intended to highlight what the show brochure notes as “the violent biases beneath [Huck and Jim’s] roiling adventures”––come off as reductive. Each of the exhibitions have trodden a delicate balance between the literary and literal, and “Finn” succeeds by being as picaresque as the book, redeeming itself with provocative inclusions around every curve.