Monday, November 19, 2007

Kara Walker at The Whitney

"I often compare my method of working to that of a well-meaning freed woman in a Northern state who is attempting to delineate the horrors of Southern slavery but with next to no resources, other than some paper and a pen-knife and some people she'd like to kill."

I first came across the work of Kara Walker on the cover of The New Yorker about two years ago. Last summer (of '06) I ran into her installations face to face at The Metropolitan Museum, in their very small space for contemporary art exhibits in the Modern art wing. While I was blown away by what I saw that day, Walker's retrospective at The Whitney is a far superior exhibit. The Whitney has finally given her work the attention and the space that it deserves.

Perhaps you've heard of Kara Walker. There was a piece about her in The New Yorker several weeks ago, by Hilton Als. Kara Walker was raised mostly in Atlanta and went to school there. She completed an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design, and was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant at the age of 28 (she was, at the time, one of the youngest people to receive the grant). Her art, in the simplest terms, deals with racism mostly through depictions of antebellum slave scenes in silhouette cuts. Her work has a demonic violence and sexuality to it. The images, while black and white, are anything but.

The show at the Whitney is called "My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love," and it incorporates Walker's larger works, which are full scale (by full scale I mean full wall) slavery scenes and pages of what appear to be Walker's sketchbook/diary, and drawings and collage. The exhibit also features video art, with smaller silhouette cuts functioning as marionettes. All of these videos are set to music; some feature silent film plates.

I find Walker's art fascinating not only because of its commentary on racism and southern history in general, but because of its violent sexuality and its depiction of women. The slave girls are seen morphing into lizards. Women give birth to monsters, men have dangerously overgrown phalluses, boys are raped, people are missing limbs and a man who looks very similar to George Washington, the father of this country, is being fellated by a young female slave. There is a lot going on in the work of Kara Walker. Maybe even too much to talk about here.

As I watched a video installation of a young slave boy being raped presumably by his master or some other white man, the person who was standing next to me (who was a young black man) started to laugh. Standing in the exhibit was a difficult experience in itself. It was Friday night (pay what you will from 6-9 at the Whitney) and almost everyone in the exhibit was under fifty and white. I felt a strange pull between feelings of guilt (for being Southern and white) and other feelings of vindication (for being female, for being "wronged" by men)---Walker opens the exhibit with a virulent letter to an ex-lover, one who treated her like a "slave," when she gave him everything. My favorite line of the letter:

"Before, when there was a before, an upon a time I was a blank space defined in contrast to your POSITIVE, concrete avowal. now, a blank space in the void and I have to thank you for forgetting to stick your neck out for me after I craned my neck so often in your arms."

In the The New Yorker piece (I would link you to it but it's too new to be included on their website) Hilton Als discusses the fact that many black artists and critics have called Walker's art "racist." Many critics and writers make a similar comment about Sylvia Plath's work by calling it "misogynist." All I have to say to them is: just by using the methods and means of the system to create art does not mean that the artist herself gives credence to these systems as truth. Plath's (and Walker's) language is indeed violent, but it is a very specifically feminized violence. Plath takes her cues from the Greeks, featuring Medea and Clytemnestra as characters in her poems. For Walker it is the Slave Girl: the bottom of the totem pole: female and black. It is about rape. And, often, it is about revenge: in some of the murals, one girl is being tortured, while another wields an axe. The installations become works of beauty because they are rewriting history even as they recount it.

Walking down Madison Avenue, I concluded that, for Walker, history, whether it be that of this country, or the history of a relationship, reinforces the fact that intense connections are made through and by abuse. The aforementioned letter, whether it be "personal" or not, says to me, as the opener to the exhibit, that none of this work would be possible, none of this violent, disgusting, but true work would be possible without pain and rejection and despair. And that even if at the end we are alone, we are alone to create and make a criticism that can scream in its clearly cut and colored intentions. The South, and this country in general, can't be confronted enough with these images. In fact, instead of celebrating Lincoln's birthday with a beer, I think perhaps everyone should make a point to go see some Kara Walker.

The Whitney exhibit runs through February 3rd, New Yorkers.
I whole-heartedly encourage you to take a look.

1 comment:

m said...

i have followed kara walker's work for years because i think it is so clever. she takes an aging form (silhouettes), one steeped in antebellum southern history, and makes it new again, using the art of oppressors to express the pain and redemption of the oppressed. (i really wanted to write my thesis on her and her work, but i chose another path.)

my sister and i were supposed to go to see the show last weekend but she got in too late. nora went later, and said that it was too much; she feels walker's work is more effective in small doses because in a retrospective, it feels repetitive. i can't pass any judgement yet, but i can't wait to see it.