Through art, startling statements about race

Kara Walker show at the Whitney Museum is filled with mocking, shaming images Art

December 02, 2007|By Holland Cotter | Holland Cotter,New York Times News Service

If you have any doubt that racism is alive and well and on a continuous shooting spree in the American psyche, why not ask the experts?

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas will have an opinion on this. So will Madonna G. Constantine, the Columbia University Teachers College professor whose office door was defaced with a noose two months ago. Or ask the African-American artist Kara Walker, whose exquisite, implacable, loose-cannon retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art is about race first and last.

Walker first came to the attention of the art world in 1994, when she was 24, with a mural she produced at the Drawing Center in SoHo. It was a narrative panorama with a long, goofy, old-timey title: "Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart." And it was made in an unusual way, from black-paper silhouette figures cut by hand and affixed to the gallery wall.

With its mock-antique form and Old South flavor, the piece had the airy, Valentine's Day prettiness of a romantic ballet. But this was no love story. It was a danse infernal of sex, slavery and chitlin-circuit comedy. Moms Mabley and the Marquis de Sade were the choreographers. Margaret Mitchell did sets. Flannery O'Connor cued the lights.

"Gone" was an instant hit. And placed at the beginning of the retrospective, Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, it still packs a punch at the Whitney. The scene is set, with the sparest of linear means, on the banks of a bayou with a full black moon overhead. Under a swag of Spanish moss, a Southern belle leans toward her courtly suitor for a kiss. But something's wrong: An extra pair of legs, thin and bare, emerges from beneath her crinoline. To whom do they belong? And what can their owner be up to under there?

So much for romance. Nearby a child strangles a duck and offers it to a woman whose body doubles as a boat. A second woman lifts a leg and two infants drop to the ground as if she's defecating babies. Seen in profile, she has caricatured Negroid features, as does a man who floats in the sky above her, buoyed by balloonlike genitals. In the center of the picture, a prepubescent black girl has sex with a white boy, possibly a slave-master's son. Nearby the master is caught in a slapstick coupling with a black woman who spits out her corncob pipe in surprise.

We stay in this freakish world, or its environs, throughout the exhibition, which includes, along with other, larger, more elaborate panoramas, dozens of drawings, collages, prints, text pieces and shadow-puppet film animations. The consistency of the imagery - hapless masters, uppity slaves, tragicomic violence, uncensored sex - is one reason the show feels so concentrated and absorbing. Once you're in it, you're really in it. You can't just stroll through.

Walker's style is magnetic. Whether in large cutouts or notebook-size drawings or in films that are basically animated versions of both, her draftsmanship is excitingly textured - old-masterish here, doodlish there - and all of a piece.

Brilliant is the word for it, and the brilliance grows over the retrospective's decade-plus span.

And then there is the theme: race. It dominates everything, yet within it Walker finds a chaos of contradictory ideas and emotions. She is single-minded in seeing racism as a reality, but of many minds about exactly how that reality plays out in the present and the past. For her, the reliable old dualities - white versus black, strong versus weak, victim versus predator - are volatile and shifting. And she uses her art - mocking, shaming, startlingly poignant, excruciatingly personal - to keep them this way.

At the Whitney, drawings form interludes between more structured work, like the cut-paper installations and projected film animations, one of which, 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005), is a highlight of the show.

Like the 19th-century moving panorama paintings on which it is modeled, this film is epic in theme and clearly handmade, with silhouette puppets manipulated by sticks, strings and fingers. It opens with a ship in a stormy sea and bound slaves being pitched overboard. They float to an island called Motherland, which turns into a giant mouth. It swallows and excretes them into the American South, where they are put to work as slaves in cotton fields.

History remains this weird, tragic vaudeville show, a free-for-all shootout with everyone gunning for everyone else. Some people will object to this as too open-ended a view: Art should give answers, yes or no, and bring closure. Others will find Walker's work too narrow: same themes, same images tweaked from piece to piece, show to show.

So fiercely imagined and resolved is her work that one tends to forget she was only in her 20s when she first startled us with its newness. Now she is two years shy of 40, and she is certain to do so again.

unisun@baltsun.com

"Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love" runs through Feb. 3 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave., New York City; 212-570-3600 or whitney.org.

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