Pure Forms: David Huffman honors his mother in Berkeley Art Center exhibit

At his moments of highest creative power, Oakland artist David Huffman has no idea what he is doing. Another paradox? While instinctively wielding the tools of his trade—oil or acrylic paint, brushes, canvas, paper, glitter, basketballs, netting, fabric, tin foil, photographs, rubber stamps, pens, pastels and more—he is entirely alone, yet simultaneously accompanied by thousands of organic and inorganic “beings” or force fields. Keeping him company and swaying his imagination and hands are the masters of abstract painting, drag queens singing the blues, Nigerian and Ghanaian people wrapped in boldly patterned textiles, immigrants from Europe, known and unknown Black ancestors, generations of slaves brought to America from Africa, mythical Sphinx-like beings, artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Huffman’s white father, Berkeley free-speechers and ghostly psychic apparitions.

Most compelling in an exhibition at Berkeley Art Center, David Huffman: Afro Hippie, the paintings, sculpture and video installation on display make apparent the influence of his mother, Dolores Davis, a social and political activist who designed the iconic Free Huey flag and at age 90 continues to live in Berkeley. The solo show includes photographs from family archives and, as a result, becomes a wide-angle overview portraying centuries of African American and World history and culture with a spotlight on a boy growing up in Berkeley during the ’60s and ’70s. Expanded by the imaginative realms of a multimedia 21st century artist, Huffman’s artwork taps realms within sci-fi, Afrofuturism and contemporary Black culture and identity. Huffman says he was given freedom to select the artwork for the exhibit that pays tribute to his mother.

Huffman studied at the New York Studio School and Oakland’s California College of the Arts and Crafts—now California College of the Arts—where he has taught drawing for the past 20 years. He has an MFA from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco and has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions across the country. His work is in the permanent collections of Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Crocker Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum Oakland Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem and other museums.

“My mind jets off, and logic is super slow—so I have to just go with what happens and think a lot less when I’m making art. It’s just bringing ingredients together. It’s like a movie director who picks the actors, the script, everything, then lets them all have at it,” Huffman says in a generous, 100-minute interview.

These words, from a man who tells students it takes 10 years of labor to “have a grip” on one’s artistic vision and technical command, indicate it’s much more complicated than that. “The materials, I don’t grab them and see what occurs,” he says. “But if I’m working with African textiles from Nigeria and Ghana, they might have an abstraction I’m curious about. That’s similar to abstract painting; it’s modern art that amalgamates African American identity and embraces the whole African continent, not a particular village.

“Let’s say work I’ve been doing in the social abstract paintings is also thinking about events at People’s Park in Berkeley. You had free food, people dancing, art booths with minimalist hard-edge paintings and Charles White figure drawing of Black people, emotional figures looking at viewers in an intense way. You had white and Black hippies. My paintings are like that now, with the scene—or the whole experience—laid out.”

A comparison of his working process to jazz musicians pleases him. “I like the way you described that,” he says. “Yes, I do make my jazz. The paintings are sightings of cultural references. It’s taking what’s there and making something with it. It becomes a narrative about human survival. Coming from slavery has been an event … .”

Invited to expand, he says, “Slavery was a rupture on Black culture. People migrated to the U.S. from Germany, Ireland, Mexico; they brought their cultures with them and it thrived in specific ways from the previous land they’d come from. We weren’t allowed to bring anything other than things people kept in their pockets, underground. Because of that, Black people have had to invent an original American Black identity, like jazz music. Black identity is a constructed identity. They didn’t have the luxury of continuity of being connected with their ancestors, their relatives.”

Connectivity is surprisingly present in the BAC show, which includes never-before-exhibited Psychic Portraits. The numbered portraits, made in 2008 and 2009, reference Blackness in Egyptian sculpture and result in images embodying tremendous suffering, power and transcendent beauty. Huffman says he’s long been intrigued by artifacts and prejudice that causes them to be viewed as speculative identities. “Archeology is storytelling with a little science in it: it’s open for fiction sometimes,” he says. “To see the Portrait series complete, not individually, by myself in my studio, they have character, a sense of person that intrigues me. Seen in the public space, they still survive with that, maybe even more so. They operate in the way I was hoping they would: portraits are a state of a person, and they hold that.”

About Psychic Portrait #1 (Queen Eve), Huffman says, “I went with the sensibility that was there: a particular reference piece that had those gold flakes in her hair. That painting was haunting for me because it was like a mask that goes over a person. I wanted it to turn into something that can look at you but also is very ancient. What is the aura of this? What being can countenance this hair? I’m one foot in the artifact reality and the other in the fleshy immersion of personhood. I want that coexistence. These portraits are elemental to the show. They’re like satellites around moons that are my abstract paintings. They’re pure forms like water, which is its own thing.”

He says that during the pandemic, long after Kaepernick roiled Americans on one knee and in the short wake following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the protests demonstrated that people continue to struggle with the idea that Black identity is not monolithic. “The clock wound down to pre-internet times during the lockdown,” Huffman says. “Maybe it’s helping people see all of their prejudices; not just racial, but about health, about white and Black people and inclusion.”

Huffman’s hoped for outcome? “Black suffering will be viewed as human suffering,” he says. “It will be Black people as human and not animals to be dismissed. You know, Black people have always wanted what is normal for everyone: get a job, have family, get an equal share.”

And so Huffman continues to inject social concerns into a formal aesthetic, working to interrupt abstract painting’s comfortable positioning in art history with the materials, aesthetics and ideas that occupy his attention as an African American artist. “Even though I want beauty and other elements, you get up close to my work and you might see a signifier that connects to something less appealing,” he says. “The universe is full of harsh ingredients that can appear quite beautiful. I look at things in the round, and that requires more than a facade. Once a thought with a range of parts has my attention, I stay with it for a while.”

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