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November 21, 2007
BC Blog Critics Culture
Terence Clarke
Kara Walker at the Whitney Museum of American Art
I have seldom seen injustice presented so directly and so well as a subject of fine art. The work of Leon Golub comes to mind, whose extravagant visions of contemporary torture are so chilling, in part because they exhibit with beautiful painting the smiling indifference of the torturers. Gottfried Helnwein paints views of sadistic punishment with the care and precision of a latter-day Vermeer. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro photograph the Spanish Civil War with the emotional intensity of Goya. Goya himself, whose paintings and prints — in a book of his etchings entitled The Disasters of War, published posthumously in 1863 — depict so effectively the savagery of guerilla warfare.
When you encounter Kara Walker's exhibit, entitled "My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love," at the Whitney Museum of American Art at 75th and Madison in New York (through February 3, 2008), you come into an enormous, all-encompassing presentation, in several large rooms of an ante-bellum South filled with cartoonish views of plantation life, black slaves, well-appointed young white people dressed in 19th century finery, trees, mansions, wagons, carriages - a view of what The Old South had to offer, but don't get excited if you really love The Old South.
Walker says of her art, "It's interesting that as soon as you start telling the story of racism, you start reliving the story. You keep creating a monster that swallows you. But as long as there's a Darfur, as long as there are people saying 'Hey, you don't belong here' to others, it only seems realistic to continue investigating the terrain of racism." This exhibit is exactly that, and the investigation is a compelling one, not least because the art is so finely made.
In the nineteenth century, there was a form of folk art that was widely practiced in the United States, in which the artist would make cutouts from black or dark-colored paper of a person's profile, an entire clothed figure, even of complicated scenes of country or city living. These cutouts would be mounted on white paper and framed for use in the home. Much of it was exceedingly charming, and gave the amateur artist the opportunity to make lovely things for her family in the quiet of her home.
This is the vehicle that Kara Walker uses for much of her art. You wouldn't think something so simple could convey complicated physical degradation, personal destruction, rapine, the heart's betrayal, and deep, deep emotional pain. Further you wouldn't think it could do this so effectively that the viewers of such a show — in this case quite large numbers of viewers — would be walking around stone-faced, as though accused themselves of the very things being shown on the museum walls, but this is the effect that Walker's art has.
So you see black slave women being stalked and assailed by white plantation owners. You see shit being left behind as black children run for safety from white — and black — punishment. There are representations of black people physically harming other black people in fearful ways. You see torture. Heartless maiming of children. The insouciant frivolousness of white southern belles dressed in frills and satin as their beaus rape unwilling black women. Attacks by black women on other black women. Little black girls in rags giving blowjobs to privileged little white boys.
I have seldom seen injustice presented so directly and so well as a subject of fine art. The work of Leon Golub comes to mind, whose extravagant visions of contemporary torture are so chilling, in part because they exhibit with beautiful painting the smiling indifference of the torturers. Gottfried Helnwein paints views of sadistic punishment with the care and precision of a latter-day Vermeer. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro photograph the Spanish Civil War with the emotional intensity of Goya. Goya himself, whose paintings and prints — in a book of his etchings entitled The Disasters of War, published posthumously in 1863 — depict so effectively the savagery of guerilla warfare.

Kara Walker's work has the same direct power. She uses graphic simplicity for maximum effect. Several of her paintings in color are included in this exhibition, and I admire them, but the cutouts leave little room for the viewer to evade the truth of what her work intends to show. You must view these pieces and you will understand what she's showing. It is victimization writ large, in which oppressors punish the oppressed and, in turn, the oppressed punish each other.
The occasions on which she shows kindness — usually of the motherly sort for abused or about-to-be abused children — are very lovingly tender, but so few that you have to search for them.
Walker is thirty-seven years old. She has become so lionized — and so criticized for the shocking abruptness of her work — that her fame is now worldwide. In 1997 she was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Achievement Award, and she has received numerous other important prizes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York thinks so well of her work that they, too, gave her a major exhibition in 2006.
Interestingly, Walker comes from Stockton, California, where, she says, her youth in terms of racism was relatively benign. Her father received an appointment to teach at Georgia State University when Walker herself was 13-years-old. She says of this move to The South, "I became black in more senses than just the kind of multicultural acceptance that I grew up with in California. Blackness became a very loaded subject, a very loaded thing to be - all about forbidden passions and desires, and all about a history that's still living, very present...the shame of the South and the shame of the South's past; its legacy and its contemporary troubles."
Note the emphasis on the phrase "contemporary troubles." I believe Walker is indeed revisiting issues from the ante-bellum South, but I also think current matters are very much being addressed in this exhibit, and that Walker intends her imagery to be a metaphor for contemporary cruelty. So, the United States, Darfur, Irak, Burma. In the recent past, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Turkey, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Serbia, Croatia.
I worried when I saw this exhibit that Walker must suffer herself from the pain of what she presents. She says, though, "I want people to respond and to be aware that if a goody-two-shoes like me can have all of this going on in her head, then nobody's safe."
Kara Walker's art is intended for our time.
A brief word, by the way, about the Whitney Museum itself, which was designed by the Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer and opened in 1966. This is a building in the brutalist tradition of the 1960s, when many architects, influenced by Bauhaus simplicities, designed enormous, blank boxes in which Fortune 500 company headquarters, major museums, housing projects for the poor, and so on were sequestered.
One such example was The World Trade Center buildings that were destroyed by the attack of September 11, 2001. Another is the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This national library is an enormous many-storied bunker, viewable from a great distance, that still exists, sadly, but is falling apart. So there's hope yet. I personally hope they're able to get the books out of it before it falls to the ground.
The Whitney's dark cheerlessness blights the street corner on which it is situated. It offends the vision that Mies van der Rohe had at Bauhaus for very simple, but airily light building design. I can think of few buildings less appropriate for the display of the color, imagination, soulfulness, and intense creativity that so much of American art possesses.




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