Mark Twain's great American novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published 125 years ago, is still regarded as a mainstay of the literary canon about race in a post-slavery America. In curating a show inspired by this giant of a novel, the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts has taken on something impossible. I mean that in a good and bad way.
The lower galleries are meant to introduce us to Mark Twain, life on the Mississippi in the post-Civil War era, and the novel's reception. The viewer finds the iconic image of the author (all that electric white hair, pipe hanging from his mouth), a replica of his typewriter, 1885 newspaper reviews of the book, and a screening room showing the original 1920 Huck Finn movie. Perhaps it's needed, but in truth, all this context feels a little contrived.
"Runaways (detail)," Glenn Ligon, 1993.
Some of the most successful works address the novel directly, taking the slave Jim as their protagonist. Edgar Arceneaux has piled books about science and memory on a desk, half of them in a cardboard box, growing sugar crystals like mold. Titled My Father Jim, the piece honors Jim as a literal and spiritual forefather. Deceptively simple, the work can be understood as a commentary on literacy and disparity in education, a nod to the violent history of sugar farming and slavery, perhaps even a questioning of our relationship to books (isn't that what the show is about, after all?) as conveyers of knowledge and truth.
This piece is also a harbinger of what is to come: the entire upper gallery is devoted to "an exploration of Jim's turbulent quest for freedom." Yinka Shonibare MBE's installation, titled Jim's Escape, is composed of a series of small kites on the ceiling and down the stairwell; they are fashioned in classic Shonibare style, out of Dutch-printed "African" dashiki-style cotton. The slave Jim, it appears, can fly away as long as it is on the back of an Anglo.
Abraham Cruzvillegas's sculpture, Jim Beam, involves a raft made from a kitchen table suspended from the gallery cieling, complete with oars and a dangling fishing pole. A bushel of rapidly browning bananas hangs at the end of the line, along with two small steel balls. His title, of course, is a double entendre. In referencing a popular brand of bourbon, the raft becomes an escape not only from literal slavery, but from the painful affronts to black masculinity that have followed that 'freedom.' It is both flying indefinitely and a raft to nowhere.
"African American Flag," David Hammons, 1993.
The curator has included several interesting works that relate indirectly to the theme of the show but speak for themselves. Felix Gonzales Torres' Untitled (The End) offers bordered blank paper take-aways, while David Hammons' African Flag features the red, black, and green of black liberation movements (both are pieces from 1990). In adding a layer of context and critical exploration to the show, they are a welcome complication.
There isn't really a bad thing in the show. It is just too dense. As a result, work such as Elizabeth Catlett's lithographs or Ruth-Marion Baruch's photographs (both picturing the racially charged 1960s) only serve to crowd the space, and end up feeling more like footnotes than topic sentences. Kara Walker, whom I sometimes feel is given too much space, is entirely crunched in here, with her watercolor drawings sometimes laid over her wall cut-outs.
"Birmingham Race Riots," Andy Warhol, 1964.
The Wattis Center exhibition is ambitious but somewhat burdened by its didactic, if noble, task. As Twain himself wrote in the 'Notice' at the start of the novel, "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."
Huckleberry Finn is on view at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts through December 11, 2010. For more information visit wattis.org.