In a brightly lit room on the periphery of Princeton’s pedestrian downtown, a ladder leans against a wall. From a distance, it looks sturdy enough, but you can’t climb it, and you wouldn’t get anywhere if you did. Small colored circles sprout from the rungs in bunches, like grapes on the trellis of a winery. Black stickpins attach these translucent dots to the ladder. The light in the Taplin Gallery passes through the little round bits of acetate, casting clusters of smeared, tinted shadows. It’s as fragile as a flower arrangement; it feels fascinating, dangerous, full of pain and hard-won elegance. It dares you to look closer. And when you do, you’ll notice the two most unnerving things about this strange sculpture. Each circle of acetate bears the stamp of a single human fingerprint. Each post and crossbar of the ladder is made from the plastic utensils dispensed in prison cafeterias.
The fingerprints belong to the ladder’s fashioner: Flemington’s Valerie Huhn, who has emerged as one of the most imaginative and subversive artists working in the Garden State. Technically, the sporks belong to Huhn, too, but they mostly belong to the vexed sphere of incarceration. The rounded edges, the tiny blunt tines and the matte industrial texture render these as inoffensive as dinner implements can get. Left implied is the reason why so much effort has gone into making these utensils anodyne: prison is a cold and violent place. Can an inmate climb her way from debasement, rung by unsteady rung, gesture by humble gesture, leaving irreducible marks of her personal struggle with each desperate clutch? And when she gets to the top, where, exactly, will she be?
These are some of the questions raised by “In Whose Image?,” the biggest, toughest-minded and most provocative exhibition of Valerie Huhn’s brilliant work yet mounted. The show, which hangs at the Arts Council of Princeton until Nov. 4, radiates beauty and terror in equal measure. (On Oct. 21, Huhn and curator Jeanne Brasile will present an artist’s talk at 1:30 p.m.) Like all Huhn exhibitions, “In Whose Image?” has an unsettling, otherworldly feel to it, with ordinary objects defamiliarized, hundreds of stickpins jabbed into pliable surfaces, and the shimmer of illumination on acetate. Yet the soul of the show is as intimate as can be. To see Huhn’s work is to encounter what is hers and hers alone: her biological insignia.
Those fingerprints are everywhere. Some are pressed on sheets of plastic, hole-punched, affixed to pins, and driven in long, even rows into the backs of store mannequins, the tops of shoes, and the pages of books. These create a second skin consisting of colored whorls on bits of membrane, hovering above the surface of the object. Other fingerprints are stamped in patterns on poster-like scrolls larger than wall mirrors. These are meticulously logged by the artist, who, in the finest-tipped black pen, scrawls the date next to each one. Fingerprints are captured on see-through blue stones and laid in the bottom drawers of a chest lit up from within. They smudge mirrors; they festoon great paper sails; they soften the electric light that falls on medical texts.
In an installation within the installation, pins bearing plastic circles are joined in bunches at the pointed end and suspended from the ceiling on thin cables. It could be a snowfall of fingerprints, or stars made of prints, or a simulation of viral particles. Just as gripping are a trio of print-covered plastic sheets hung, one in front of another, in the gallery window. Viewed from the inside, the fingerprints seem to shiver and shift with changes in the outdoor light. An illusion — one of many — is created. The air around the Arts Council is suddenly freighted with fingerprints.
Anyone who has ever been booked by police knows that prints are taken in black. Pointedly, that’s the only color Valerie Huhn doesn’t use. Her rainbow of ink would read as an act of queer resistance even if she didn’t spike it with glitter (she does). Often her fingertips are dipped in several colors at once, and the print becomes a little swirling gradient. Is this the beautification of surveillance? In a way, it is, but it’s also more than that. Huhn is wresting back control of her identity and she’s tinting it in her own nongovernmental colors. She knows she’s being watched; she recognizes she leaves traces of herself on everything she touches and sees. She’s daring us to read and follow the signs. If we get caught on those porcupine needles, driven with purpose into sneakers and sofas, well, that’s the hazard of tangling with a complex and prickly psyche.
Huhn has found room for bureaus of investigation — old wooden furniture containing sheets of fingerprints — in prior shows. The bureau that squats in the middle of “In Whose Image?” is, literally and figuratively, her most loaded yet. There is a murmur of lepidoptery in the piece: fingerprints on pins are arranged in specimen jars like butterflies under examination. Another drawer is heavy with fingerprint-saturated liners, each one partially occluding the sheet beneath it. Blue light from a video monitor and refracted through beach glass gives the whole thing an eerie, fissile radiance. Slide the drawers open, get up close, bask in the stark beauty and experience the emotional convulsion.
The reliquary feel of the bureau — a repository of memory and identity — dovetails with another theme of “In Whose Image?” Huhn is fascinated by body science, neural networks, and the functions of her own thrillingly unruly mind. Her fingerprint-decorated enhancement of ancient tomes feels like a blow struck on behalf of neurodiversity. Black and white books dedicated to medical orthodoxy are stained by Huhn’s pastel colors and touched by the shadows of her acetate prints. It is, like so much of her work, an act of gorgeous defiance.
She’s not setting the castle ablaze or battering down the walls of the prison. Instead, her protest is more insidious and more effective. She’s guiding her stiletto into the cracks in the concrete, casting her odd and peculiar light, making a new realm of color and joy where neither color nor joy had been, getting the desert around her to bloom. She’s insisting that a cold world make a place for her. Pin by pin and print by print, the world is better for it.
The Arts Council of Princeton presents Valerie Huhn’s “In Whose Image?” at the Taplin Gallery through Nov. 4. Visit artscouncilofprinceton.org.
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