The first time I recall seeing Kara Walker’s work was sometime in the early 00s while still in my teens. In particular, it was a seminal piece of hers, No Mere Words Can Adequately Reflect the Remorse This Negress Feels At Having Been Cast Into Such A Lowly State By Her Former Masters And So It Is With A Humble Heart That She Brings About Their Physical Ruin And Earthly Demise (1999), a panoramic tableau utilizing a dark grey background against which where the glowing white bodies of swans wearing the sihlouettes of black heads. Moving outward from this central, gripping image was a barrage of highly referential scenes--including a nod to Delacroix’s Lady Liberty Leading the People except her Lady was plucking out her eyes amongst many other grotesque and horrific scenes unfolding before my eyes like a streamlined Bosch. It was as horrifying as it was life-changing, the lack of any facial feature or details erased from her quasi-cartoonish figures engaging in a chaotic interplay of violent revenge and total domination, confronting the viewer with the stubbornness of slavery’s legacy that had been transmuted into 150 years of racist governmental policy and cultural stereotypes.
Commenting on that particular work, Walker stated, “I wanted to make a piece that was incredibly sad...I wanted to make a piece that was about something that couldn't be stated or couldn't be seen." But for a young white cis male growing up in a comfortable college town to academic parents, I felt something much more profound than sadness.
It was a stinging, eye-opening, and wholly transformative experience that was not unlike being punched in the face for the first time, which occurred during the first few weeks of middle school. New to the world of public school and the bus system, I was punched in the eye by a black female classmate who I was sharing a seat with on the bus and had just been a minute prior been getting along with amiably. Taking umbrage at my moving her backpack so I had room--a rookie bus rider mistake--her laughter morphed seamlessly into a string of curses at me as I was left speechless, remaining so while struck upon the eye.
I felt little anger or resentment as I was overtaken by an earnest confusion unlike any I had experienced.I do think there was a subconscious understanding that I was on the receiving end of an anger that was somehow beyond me and perhaps had very little to do with me personally as much as what I represented ultimately, though I was not fully cognizant of this at the time. It was encountering Walker’s art that something started to crystallize for me that I had been butting up against in the works of Emma Amos and Lorna Simpson and in my own personal experiences growing up in a predominantly white Christian Midwestern city. Her referential and literary titles often served to confirm the suspicions elicited by her work, an understanding of the fact that while bodies can die and decay, it’s the caricatures and stereotypes that persist, that take on a life of their own.
Walker’s art did anger many within the African-American community through her insistence on relying upon the racist caricatures that have pervaded our popular culture for centuries: the Sambos, the Mammies, the Sapphires. To depict mass genocide as a series of tragicomical vignettes was an affront to many individuals’ notion of what black art should be, embodied in the proud women of Amos’ portraits, Kehinde Wiley’s polite subversion of rococo portraiture, and other work that explicitly sought to restore a dignity barely to African-Americans that was still too often denied them over a century after abolition. And while that is certainly an important function of some black art, it by no means is the defining purpose of all black art nor should art necessarily be black in the first place. As the late painter Barkley L. Hendricks once remarked, “I can understand the reasons why artists might be motivated to correct art history, or make a political statement, but I also think about stupid shit that happens. I paint people, black and white, who I like and who want to pose for me.” Indeed, people’s inclination to class a work as ‘black art’ can bypass that artist’s own intentions, making them a vehicle for others’ opinions and politics rather than taking the work on its own terms.
I’ll admit to growing weary of Walker’s development over the past two decades as her visual language became more familiar and more significantly, it became a spectacle. I only had to see pictures online of tourists taking selfies with Walker’s black sphinx at her “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” installation at the now-condo-fied Domino sugar refinery to know that I wouldn’t be able to handle waiting in line on a hot summer day to see a work that should cause one to witness in solemn contemplation.
Last year’s exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, “The Ecstasy of St. Kara” showed an artist trying to recapture the sting her work inflicted upon so many viewers, each painting feeling like the flick of a bic lighter that’s run out of fluid. The essay for the show showed an artist, like so many others, both angered and desensitized by the seemingly endless parade of black bodies on cable news, writing that the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag had become “shorthand for a kind of race fatigue,” a symptom of a “nihilistic age” devoid of meaning. And as insightful as that observation is, the paintings on show in Cleveland showed an artist still struggling
So by the time I finally made it to Walker’s latest solo exhibition at long-time gallery Sikemma Jenkins & Co.--billed as Kara Walker: Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!
--and made my way through the tour group and assorted visitors eager to see this latest batch of work before the show closed on October fourteenth, I was approaching the show with little to somewhat-low expectations. Between the countless smart phones out taking pictures and the huddled groups of students and tourists, it felt more like an obligatory chore than necessary experience. It felt like the type of middling show that the pull-quote of a title would typically refer, more spectacle than statement. That is, until I stood face-to-face with the first of two dozen-plus works of varied sizes and means for communicating the artist’s vision, with painting playing a far more pronounced role than the sihlouettes. It’s a medium for which Walker received her MFA but one that often felt ancillary to the more conceptual works achieved through the paper cut-outs and large-scale installations, her ideas often outstripping her success in her more painterly works.
That’s not the case at Kara Walker, a show that sees the artist achieving the visceral, punch-in-the-gut effect of her most seminal work in a far more well-worn medium. Her voice and point of view radiate throughout every work of art on display while giving the artists many more entryways into her mind and themes of human exploitation, sexual violence, and the enduring persistence of caricatures and stereotypes that are often further amplified by our various culture machines.
Similar to her Cleveland show that featured smaller, more painterly pieces inspired by Walker’s 2015 residency at the American Academy in Rome, the first thing that struck me was the almost haphazard approach to scale, the large paper-cut sihlouettes are back and immediately within eyesight via Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something), but interspersed with many more smaller works. And the large-scale paintings that were on exhibition in Cleveland have grown more ambitious and more acute with the artist often foregoing the linearity afforded by her more panoramic work, scaling up rather than out. The historical storyteller in Walker, one always eager to draw connections across so much of art and human history, feels more confident in her authorial voice while effortlessly collapsing the space afforded by time as Walker digs even deeper into the lexicon of racist imagery that has often stood to symbolize blackness in America.
Walker was always an artist that seemed to grasp the inherent connection between art and advertising in her ability to create iconic imagery whose narrative was at once instantly graspable while containing multitudes of meaning upon further investigation. This is instantly evident via one of the show’s smallest pieces, Cartoon Study for Brand X, a heartfelt, almost loving portrait a female slave wearing a headwrap staring over her shoulder seemingly back at the viewer, like a 50s-style pin-up. But her eyes don’t convey lust but a wounded, saddened pain inflicted through a heart-shaped brand, one that might otherwise read “Mom,” capturing the many roles black women and female slaves must play both then and today; the whore and the saint, prize and property. Gazing upon this image one’s eyes soon fall upon some wavy pencilled lines emanating from the word “sizzle” inscribed just beneath the painted brand
In taking in the show’s larger works, in particular the centerpiece of Christ’s Entry into Journalism, the Where’s Waldo style of similar-proportioned subway ads that have been popular amongst nascent service apps from tech companies like Lyft and Carver comes through in the painting’s mountainous outline that contains over eighty characters, one often springing to life from another. And while this connection might be tenuous, what’s undeniable is that Walker has managed to achieve the dizzying historical synchronicity and grandeur of her earliest famous works in a style more identifiable as uniquely her own. Part of what was so upsetting for some about her paper-based works was that her historical figures were robbed of any nuance, any real character due to Walker’s semiotic sihlouettes that so effectively communicated the disrespect extended to black bodies.
Here, Walker has explored the language of popular art and illustrations while also giving plenty for the art historians to mull over, with the titles and composition of James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888) and Benjamin Robert Haydon’s Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (1820), both works depicting crowds’ reaction to the messiah’s coming and affirming his existence in the process. Walker’s center of gravity within the photo is tougher to pin down, though the small but unmistakable imagery of children swinging from a branch alongside a lynched man and the Christmas tree-like shape of an exaggerated Klan member from whose garb a female slave peers out, almost seeming fused together. As the reader’s eyes work their way from the top down or up from either of the bottom corner, they scan over a litany of painted black historical figures, symbols, and icons ranging from the antebellum period that is typically Walker’s time period of choice through Jim Crow, 60s soul and revolution up to the big-lipped hooded teen of today, all rendered in broad strokes, their legacy straddling the reverent and cartoonish as if Walker’s sensitive brush is able to capture the multiplicity of meaning for a wide swath of viewers, from all backgrounds. She’s not necessarily trying to change the way the audience sees a particular representation as much as how they respond to it, that discomfort and unease always lingering long after one has left the piece.
Art historians might look back one day and pinpoint Christ’s Entry as a crucial turning point, the moment when she was able to create the kind of head-turning imagery for which she became famous via her native medium. But for this reviewer, the painting’s importance to Kara Walker lies in that it feels like both a summation of the show itself and a new rubric upon which to build a new, more painterly body of work.
For as stream-of-consciousness as the show can feel, both the show’s title and the press release greeting viewers on their way in or out of the gallery both feel wonderfully calculated, the show’s title a nod to Walker’s enhanced profile. Evoking the cadence and vernacular of a traveling salesman (or slave trader), the press release is telling in the awkward yet sincere way Walker’s prose and ideas straddle disparate time periods and geographies. It also is self-aware in that most unique of ways; it’s calculated but sincere. Having occupied this stage before, she writes to her audience:
Modest collectors will find her prices reasonable, those of a heartier disposition will recognize Bargains! Scholars will study and debate the Historical Value and Intellectual Merits of Miss Walker’s Diversionary Tactics. Art Historians will wonder whether the work represents a Departure or a Continuum. Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media.
Though she goes on to address the parents, academics, critics, and even the “Final President of the United States”’ reactions, the above represents a cogent entrée or farewell to the viewer who has likely just played out said reactions or at least mulled them over in speculation. It’s helpful to consider the dual meaning of “diversionary” as not just intending to divert attention from something more important but as having the effect of turning aside from its course. Walker uses the cultural vernacular of racism and turns it inwards upon itself, inverting meaning and disorienting one’s compass. And while she might be a historical painter, it’s hard not to feel like these figures from the past loom large over every present and future moment in this country, especially now.
In her more single-minded works--or at least single-subject--Walker’s hand flits from abstraction to didacticism seemingly within the same stroke, though other pieces bat down the ever-creeping nuance to deliver forceful, unforgettable images, like the above painting, Future Looks Bright. Its subject could be an allusion to the romanticizing “black girl magic” meme that empowers by also indirectly reifying the “magical negro” motif so beloved of Hollywood film or another permutation of Walker’s historical characters upending the balance of power, the mighty, righteous anger that pours forth from the woman’s eyes and every muscle and pore. Whether the spherical object is a crystal ball-like conduit for or a recognizable symbol of channeled raw energy, the blast it hurtles forth at the viewer feels like it might overwhelm the oval canvas that further focused the mighty magic contained within.
The power for caricature to dictate character has been a potent theme in Walker’s work since first arising to national prominence in 1994, the actions of her outlined characters further reifying historical archetypes. Sex and violence, and sexual violence itself, is a tool of both subjectifying humiliation and self-empowering vengeance. Early encounters with Walker’s 2D historical dioramas proved a mixture of fevered slave revolts and ghastly sexual assaults, her black bodies robbed of any real self-actualization or recuperation of self as their features guarantee that they will remain raced first. But where Walker formerly let the audience fill in the blanks and project their own prejudices and pride back upon her characters while not so slyly reminding them the enduring power of slavery’s shaping of the black experience in America to this very day, the artist has taken an important step forward in filling in the blanks. In the painting Scraps, a female slave is caught mid-dance wearing just a bonnet upon her own head while dangling the decapitated head of her former master who is actively staring back up at her vacant eyes in absolute terror. For all the pencilled detail afforded the single-toothed white face, Walker’s house slave remains a pained parody, her joyless face rendered efficiently in quick painterly strokes and at odds with the agency suggested by the axe hanging from her other hand.
Industrial illustration as dictated by the hand-drawn commercial art of the twentieth century was regularly reduced to a simple formula in nickel how-to draw guides and in academic institutions and culture machines like the Disney animation studios whose infamous Song of the South helped in carrying over Antebellum South imagery and folklore. Walker’s black women in particular are regularly rendered in a painterly mechanistic way, their bodies and faces retaining the parodistic curvature found in her sihlouettes.
When Walker first gained attention in the 90s, her work both aligned with and butted up against that period’s often token need for political correctness as the artist exposed the narrow conception of what black should be while also reminding a society that would be quick to deem itself ‘post-racial’ during the Obama administration that it was not as far removed from its ignominious history as it might have wished. With a KKK-endorsed candidate in the Whitehouse now and a renewed sense of political activism abounding in the American black community as embodied almost solely in the Black Lives Matter movement as cables news has reduced BLM to a hashtag catchall for racial fatigue in this country--we like our stories told in broad strokes after all--the endless focus Walker has given to American racism seems less provocative than it did two decades ago.
It is in filling the outlines with hollowed-out generalities that Walker has enabled herself to sharpen her messages while further reminding the audience of the richness of racism, something that is perfectly captured in the impaled and sexless cartoon body of Alive, not Dead, its title offering forth an unusual optimistic tone that is tempered by the tree branch-impaled body found at the center of the canvas. The background of the painting is an expressive, minimalist rendering of a swamp-like coupling of trees surrounded by rocks, out of which grow Bantu knot-like bunches of branches and moss, mimicking the bunched hair of the naked slave held limping in midair by the solid branch that extends definitively outward. For me, this painting swiftly and brutally summarized so much of Walker’s art and her use of caricature to represent enslaved African Americans. The lasting residue of the trauma inflicted both upon the bodies and minds of slaves exists across the American spectrum as cultural representation can serve to perpetuate prejudiced and racist myths and stereotypes, preserving an era in our history that make be demarcated by the passage of time but whose legacy has persisted through the over 150 years that have passed since the abolition of slavery and the closure of the Antebellum South era.
Right around the time I saw Walker’s show, I was exploring the idea of “inherited racial trauma” as presented within the web series American Koko, a show in which one of the persistent tensions is its lead character’s ability to keep a lid on her “angry black woman syndrome” and refusal to ignore the lasting echoes of slavery that continue to permeate American society. History’s effect on the present is often silent or invisible, but it is never impalpable. It may be ignorable, especially if your skin color is lacking in eumelanin, but if recent history has shown us anything, it’s that we all are still coming to terms with racism in a very real way and that a post-racial America is likely generations away still. It was also right around the time when legions of powerful white women were speaking out about the hidden-in-plain-sight sexual violence endemic to Hollywood and every other industry, in particular that perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein. In the weeks since, any denial that sexual violence isn’t part and partial of our society has gone out the window as scores of mostly white men at different levels of public notoriety have since been outted on social media and in the press.
One such incident, the prolonged sexual abuse perpetrated by indie rocker Matt Mondaline formerly of the band Real Estate, hit my own sphere of reality, prompting one female friend who knew him to comment in regards to his total lack of respect for boundaries that she doubted that he had ever been punched in the face. Is there as upside to violence?
Violence, both experiencing it and being witness to it, has a way of making one see a bit clearer, for better and worse. It’s upsetting at best and traumatizing at a minimum, even in the most subtle of ways. It reminds us that our bodies are vulnerable and robs us of the comfort of certain concepts learned through our upbringing and exposure to society and culture at large. One could argue all successful art inflicts a degree of violence upon the viewer in as much as it can shake loose latent suspicions and precipitate life-changing realizations. And in Kara Walker, we see an artist exploring violence from all angles; as a tool of subjugation, as a tool of revenge, as something whose imprint can be everlasting. That her images can actually inflict a level of violence or offend speaks to her command of visual semiotics and ability to boil down a complex idea to deceptively simple imagery. It’s in stepping back and examining her ever-growing visual lexicon that one moves past the impact of her work to contemplate the impact of racism itself and the countless ways in which our society and culture has and continues to reify racist notions through our very institutions and entertainment. That her message feels more timely than ever is the real offense. But by gaining a mastery over her voice and style as a painter, Walker has only sharpened her ability to connect with viewers and possibly change the way they see the world. Or at least give them a bruise in the process.