David Huffman, Dreampop, 2014.

Faculty Spotlight: David Huffman, Painting/Drawing & Fine Arts

David Huffman (Painting/Drawing 1986, MFA 1998) a tenured faculty member of CCA’s Painting/Drawing and MFA in Fine Arts programs discusses how to push the professional artist.

It’s been a banner year for painter and installation artist David Huffman (Painting/Drawing 1986, MFA 1998), a tenured faculty member of CCA’s Painting/Drawing and MFA in Fine Arts programs.

In fact, it’s been his busiest year ever -- five exhibitions, including two solo shows, one at Roberts and Tilton in Los Angeles and another at Anglim Gilbert Gallery in San Francisco. Both exhibitions focused on his most recent work: multilayered paintings that explore the politics of race using the basketball and hoop netting as conceptual elements.

His work was also shown in Oakland Museum of California’s All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50, which aimed to promote a deeper reflection about the Black Panther Party and its place in our shared history.

Who Is Artist David Huffman?

In grad school Huffman became interested in space -- specifically the Apollo missions and the NASA program. Early in his career he was best known for his “traumanaut” series, described as “futuristic land- and space-scapes populated by African American astronauts.”

He is an artist who is driven by his passion for art and his ability to assign it concept and meaning. He describes the moment he discovered how to integrate concept into his art as his “art baptism,” a term used by an undergraduate peer, the late acclaimed installation artist Jason Rhoades.

Huffman was also strongly influenced by faculty member Franklin Williams, who inspired him to “find something deeper to make work from.”

He was drawn toward African American iconography, working with stereotypical imagery from the 18th and 19th centuries: minstrels, blackface, and more modern pejorative depictions such as the Aunt Jemima character.

Unique Approach Sets Artist Apart

Huffman wasn’t the first to explore such imagery; Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles were also addressing similar themes at the time. What set Huffman apart was that he combined imagery with the concept of space to propagate themes like race, alienation, otherness -- conceptualizing racial questioning in his work. “Space to me became a ‘reinvention’ of history,” explains Huffman.

As part of his thesis work, Huffman focused on “trauma smiles” -- those traumatic grins typically associated with demoralized black-faced people, such as World War II veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) whom America didn’t want to acknowledge.

Such simplistic depictions made certain truths about black persons easier to gloss over, so Huffman developed his concept to highlight the history of racial negation and centuries-old discriminatory and prejudicial attitudes toward blacks.

“What are they so happy about?” presses Huffman. “It wasn’t a grin of joy; it was a grin of trauma and repression.

And that became this kind of format for me to take the narrative further to look at past histories -- African American culture in the US, the rupture of slavery -- so I turned to making ‘traumanauts,’ which related to the space program, and all that reflected an African American ideology.”

His new work, he says, is about “beauty and affliction, a weaving of the many strategies that I have employed in the last eight years, utilizing real basketball hoop netting, handmade basketball stamping, chains, text, drawing, and more to create social abstract paintings.”

Pushing the Professional Artist

Today conceptual art is far more common, and Huffman credits CCA with pushing its students professionally: “Lots of people are out there showing and doing great stuff; now CCA is more of a professionally oriented school -- that’s high marks, because you want folks to survive as artists.”

As for his students, Huffman wants them to see the bigger picture: “I try to get them to be as serious as they can be so they have a chance. We explore what painting can do. It’s more than becoming a known artist with a gallery; it’s about a path of the soul . . . a kind of fulfillment that you’re not missing out on life.

“If you get that practice down, you really get something in your life.”