why the visibility of juliana huxtable is so important
Juliana Huxtable, club kid, poet, artist and muse, is the star of the New Museum Triennial. We examine her place in the cultural landscape.
Photography Michael Bailey Gates
The 31st of March was International Transgender Day of Visibility. Throughout history we have seen how visibility is important for individual struggles, and visibility of difference is vital if we are to have a better world. Those working with bodies that aren't deemed normal, that is, not straight, white, male, are often subject to violence and cannot be seen outside of the bodies they are read through; these are bodies that are still owned, held, beheld, abused by others.
Some are visible bodies, yet visible under the rubric of how they are owned, the voices of much of these bodies still go unheard, this is the paradox of visibility which we must be mindful of. Mark Aguhar, a transgender artist who committed suicide in 2012, said of visibility "It's that thing where you realise that your own attempts at passive aggressive manipulation and power don't stand a chance against the structural forms of domination against your body." So many online communities are seizing visibility, even by being muses to other artists, to make their self-image outside this rubric, to exist beyond owned flesh, to be bodies with voices. One of the key places you can find this is in the work of Juliana Huxtable.
Juliana Huxtable doesn't have a blue chip gallery; her art can instead be found in her club nights, poetry readings and on the internet, but rarely in commercial spaces or at heavyweight art fairs, yet she's one of the youngest artists in the New Museum's prestigious Triennial, Surround Audience. And as Vogue put it, "If Surround Audience were a film, Juliana Huxtable would be its star." So how has she outshone some of the exhibition's bigger names like Ed Atkins, Josh Kline and Oliver Laric? How has a club kid and muse become the star?
Possibly because her work encapsulates the curatorial premise for the third edition of the Triennial. It "explores the effects of an increasingly connected world both on our sense of self and identity as well as on art's form and larger social role", yet it does so without ironic distance or questionable anthropological turns. Huxtable's art does not look at society, it is part of society, and affects it. Possibly, simply, because of the affecting power of her own work and personality, and the rare position she's carved out for herself culturally.
And thankfully she is affecting the part of society in which the art world resides too. In the Triennial, Frank Benson's sculpture of Huxtable sits alongside the artist's own prints, deftly providing us with a window into her impact as a muse, without continuing the silence that the objectified and ripped muse has so often had in art history. This is a smart move by the curators Ryan Trecartin and Lauren Cornell, and gives a grace to Benson's otherwise potentially appropriative piece - a life size nude sculpture of the trans artist, entitled Juliana, made by 3D scanning Huxtable around a year and a half ago and fabricated in plastic.
Juliana, you might assume, is spread too thin to succeed in an art world not kind to club kids-cum-artists, and yet Juliana (DJ, poet, artist, promoter, muse and model) seems to have bucked that trend, despite being black and trans in a world of WASP-y socialites. She's also crafted show soundtracks for Hood By Air, collaborated with Le1f, walked for Eckhaus Latta and Chromat this season (alongside two creatives most closely aligned as her contemporaries, Hari Nef and Michael Bailey Gates) and has previously modelled for DKNY too.
Yet beyond her cool kid status, her work stands out as unique, thrilling and totally necessary. It usually takes the form of self-imaging and poetry, and drives conversations on transliberation beyond mainstream conceptions of simply the right to transition from one socially acceptable gender to another.
For the Triennial her self-portraits depict a woman, but not one that is predetermined. Juliana, born intersex and raised in Texas as gender male, and one of the few people of colour in a predominantly white school, says she is concerned with "embodying alternatives to constrictive conventions or biases". Her self-portraits invoke cyborgian imagery, at times simply through the digital landscapes she occupies - fuchsia tinted skies and blocks of turquoise water. The cyborgian woman is however not presented as something separate from the world, but as an holistic organism.
As Juliana herself describes it "most peoples' ideas on nature and normality is completely and totally skewed". The transphobia and hatred evident in some elements of the feminist movement (whether it's Julie Burchill or Germaine Greer or, infamously, the RadFem2012 conference) is just one part of life that epitomises this skewed perspective. When the RadFem conference discriminated against trans women, it too narrowed the possibilities for feminism itself - how can we break free of a patriarchal conception of gender, if we refuse to understand gender outside of the patriarchal conception of it that's been doled out to us?
This is why Huxtable's work is vital in struggles for people of colour, trans persons, feminists and more. Her work provides us with images of potentials, her series of the works in the Triennial: Universal Crop Tops for All the Self Canonized Saints of Becoming, reminds us that 'becoming' is a constantly changing state of being, a state which refuses to accept that the world around us is fixed, which challenges the status quo. Where artists such as Wu Tsang and Sharon Hayes make work from queer and trans communities and shine a lens on current and past struggles and histories, Huxtable hurls us into a better future.
We are presented with a challenge to what constitutes gender, but more than that we are given a refreshing presentation of the internet and its relationship to artists beyond the already outdated and overdone rhetoric of changing production and distribution, renewing methodologies of appropriation, pallidly gesturing to capitalism.
What we are shown in Huxtable's work is an articulation of self that is built through and beyond the internet, that exists in a space which gives room to communities that are not protected or properly represented.
Why is Juliana Huxtable the star of the Triennial? Where post-internet art gives us images of consumerism as a critique of capitalism, often through a lack of distance, Huxtable instead creates critical distance (both in practice and to many of her peers) by refusing to replicate what is deemed normal.
Juliana Huxtable's work does not pertain to critique a thing, but rather in our own viewing we - society - are critiqued, through our recognition that we are seeing images that don't fall under 'normcore'. Juliana Huxtable demands a shift, celebrates herself and a community that are image making online and challenging perceptions offline, and wills the images into being, beyond the gallery wall or tumblr web page.
Text Rózsa Farkas