Juliana Huxtable is not one to sit idle. Since graduating from Bard College in 2010, she has leapt between various corners of the New York arts scene: as the host of Shock Value, a semiregular transgender-inclusive party; as a model; as a member of the arts collective House of Ladosha; and as a creator and performer who has both D.J.ed and shown work at major museums. Coming off her last art show — an array of off-kilter multimedia work titled “Interfertility Industrial Complex: Snatch the Calf Back” that opened at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in New York this past fall — her plan was to focus for a bit on her music, traveling the world for D.J. and music gigs she’d lined up in cities ranging from Amsterdam to Novi Sad, Serbia.
Then the pandemic hit, forcing Huxtable, 32, to stay put in Berlin, where she’s lived part time the last couple of years when not in New York or touring — and allowing her to double down (with interludes spent at local protests against racism and police brutality) on one of the more solitary aspects of her practice: writing. In addition to her second book of poetry, she’s assembling what she describes as a part epistolary, mixed-form novel, which builds, she said over a recent Skype call from her Kreuzberg apartment, on the themes of her fall show: “interspecies and trans-species discourse, epigenetics and how that influences identity,” particularly with respect to racial trauma and food. (For inspiration, she’s been reading Leila Taylor’s 2019 book “Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul.”) “I’m thankful I have writing to turn to, because it requires so little but can do so much.”
Huxtable started writing poetry around age 8 and, during high school, contributed poems and digital art to various early 2000s blogs. While at Bard, she felt alienated from wealthy classmates who had “a self-awareness about their relationship to art-making” and instead delved into philosophy, gender theory and literature, eventually sharing her latest ideas within the more diffuse realm of Tumblr, where she gained a following. “The distinction between being a cultural consumer and a cultural producer was more collapsible there,” said Huxtable. “And there was slippage between that and generating a real practice.” She believes that her interests in writing and internet subculture have given her an alternate space and shielded her from the powerful systems many artists have to work within — first “the art-school industrial complex,” she said, and then the art world itself, even if she must still rely on the latter to execute her more complex projects.
The common thread running through Huxtable’s work, particularly her writing and artwork, which frequently combine in text-based inkjet prints, is a provocative if often cheeky exploration of layered identity and how it is and isn’t moldable: What stories are told about us — or are written on our bodies — and which do we tell ourselves? She’s perhaps best known for her self-portraits, rendered in photography, in which she appears as a creature-like avatar. In “Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm)” (2015), part of her “Universal Crop Tops for All the Self Canonized Saints of Becoming” series, Huxtable is seated on her heels, nude but for a delicate beaded anklet, her skin painted a turquoise green and her long braids a neon yellow. Her back is to the camera, but her body is tilted, as if confidently inviting the viewer to gaze upon her side profile. In the background is a dense cloud of blue smoke, and that viewer might be left wondering if Huxtable, who’s knowingly adhering to notions of the feminine ideal even as she subverts them, has perhaps emerged from the sea or sky.
Fantasy, of course, can serve as a refuge for those cruelly pushed aside while also reminding us of the reality of certain injustices. Huxtable, who was born intersex and initially assigned as male, grew up in Bryan-College Station, Texas, where she experienced overt racism, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny. Given all that she faced, it feels both inevitable and miraculous that she had enough resolve to seek a creative life.
Her breakout moment came in 2015 with the New Museum Triennial, at which she showed her “Universal Crop Tops” pictures and the artist Frank Benson showed his luminescent 3D-printed sculpture “Juliana,” for which Huxtable was the model. That same year, Huxtable performed “There Are Certain Facts That Cannot Be Disputed” — a meditation, via monologues, graphic design and audiovisual production, on historical memory and the internet as archive for marginalized narratives — at the Museum of Modern Art.
Since then, Huxtable has looked at the aesthetics and language of political protests and newspaper headlines. It’s worth noting that, after college, she worked for the A.C.L.U.’s racial justice program as a legal assistant. Her 2017 gallery show “A Split During Laughter at the Rally,” which included a short film with footage of jaded L.G.B.T.Q. activists, slogan-printed buttons and posters (“Crossdressers 4 Christ,” “The War on Proof”) and documents positing various conspiracy theories, seemed to highlight the ridiculousness embedded in American politics. That it was difficult to parse a clear-cut message or feel-good takeaway only made it feel more timely. “I like a kind of unstable positioning,” said Huxtable. “With a show, you’re entering a world I’ve crafted, and one of the things that I aspire to as an artist is to create a world that can provoke a set of questions.” Indeed, a panel from her last show depicts Huxtable as part bat, part woman, hovering opposite doctored tabloid covers proclaiming “Bats Bite Back” and “Face-Off: Genetically Modified Cow Woman Attacks Trans Activists ‘I May Be Part Cow, But I Am a Biological Female!’”
She sees that 2017 show as a turning point in her practice. “Initially, I was coming from really raw emotional places, because I didn’t allow myself the creative license or feeling of entitlement to just produce work out of curiosity,” said Huxtable. “That was the initiation of a specific kind of formal and conceptual advancement, of intellectual and conceptual curiosity merged with emotional intensity.” Sometimes, Huxtable has found herself frustrated by the cost of not being a more predictable artist or, as she puts it, “just fully giving into the thing and performing expectations.” But she’s remained true to herself and, ultimately, as her new book project is proving, her versatility and agile mind are assets. “There’s a certain kind of historical novelty that is important for my personal development. That feeling of, ‘Oh my God, I’m figuring out a new mode,’” Huxtable says. “I have that feeling with this.”