When artist Valerie Huhn (American, b. 1962) was a bachelor of fine arts student at the San Francisco Art Institute in the mid-1990s, she lived in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. “I lived in a neighborhood of mainly transgender, gay, black, Latino and Asian. There were also a lot of students, like me. A lot of my neighbors were really desperate. It was the remnants of crack and enormous drug use, prostitution, and homelessness. The area had so many of the fragile and most vulnerable. It came down to race and class,” Huhn said in a recent interview. It was Huhn’s reaction to seeing her “marginalized neighborhood full of marginalized people” that caused her to create art from fingerprints, work she continues to today. Speaking about hostile police behavior towards her neighbors, Huhn stated: “I would watch them get arrested for trivial things. It seemed incredibly unfair. I could see that these guys would be taken down, fingerprinted, maybe even roughed up, and no one would speak for them.”
It was the symbol of the fingerprint that Huhn – who today lives in New York and will soon open a New Jersey studio — grabbed to exploit as a source and subject in her art. Her use of fingerprints actualizes her memories of these California experiences: they are a testament to aggressive tactics from the authorities, a visualization of the arrests of her neighbors, and document her sensitivity to individual rights. “People have used fingerprints for mark-making since the earliest recorded days of civilization,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “Yet fingerprints today are far more likely to be used for marking others than for stamping a claim of ownership or creation. They are most widely employed by the police and forensic labs, banking institutions, and government health services.”
So while Huhn is sympathetic to the transition of this most basic human mark in the larger culture, she uses the fingerprint as a sign of individual identity. The artist has created an unusual self-portrait where she tucks row on row of tiny fingerprinted circles with sequin-like shimmering translucency into the void of a bedroom bureau’s drawer. She transforms regular wood dressers owned by friends and family into works of art. Sometimes, she fills a single drawer with circles. Other times, she sets up a different style of fingerprint art in each drawer of an entire bureau.
With her right index finger, Huhn first adheres pigment to a four by ten foot expanse of acetate and labels each of the thousands of fingerprints on the acetate with the date the mark was made. She next hole-punches through the center of each fingerprint and collects the punched out circles. By spearing four of these circles to a 1 1/4 inch long straight pin, she arranges them standing in the snug confines of a dresser drawer. In each drawer, there are more than one thousand small circles. Her work’s title Fingerprint Bureau Pin Drawer is an exact description of Huhn’s materials and process. (I first saw Huhn’s work last summer when I served as the juror for the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition exhibition.)
The viewer, anticipating a dresser drawer stuffed with socks or t-shirts, instead sees neat geometric rows of iridescent dots. Those dots play off one another and shine in the overhead light the artist installs above the sculpture. Her beauteous colors transform a mundane material like acetate into small gems of pigment. “The only color I won’t use is black because that is the standard booking color,” Huhn acknowledges. Huhn’s Fingerprint Bureau is a narrative initially based on a collection of lives and continues today as the mark of her own presence.