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Kara Walker: Shadows of the Past

Donald Paneth Dec 9

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Kara Walker’s art begins with very little, with paper dolls, if you will; with cutouts that become gallery-size murals, vast, panoramic epics of Black slavery in America. The murals present Walker’s pictorializations of slavery – the transport of slaves, the slave ship, Southern plantation life – as she imagines it to have been. And in these images, at once fantasy and fantastical, Walker explores the origins of racism in America today. She asks: What is racism? Why? Who is white?

In the survey of her work currently at the Whitney Museum of American Art through Feb. 3, the artist displays an imagination in revolt. She is a revolte, an absolutist; opposed to confession and to absolution, the easing of conscience with forgiveness as a reward.

She addresses her exhibition, “Dear you hypocritical fucking Twerp,” and continues, Should I never be heard from again, follow the Route of my forbears and quietly,
GO….”

In her major works – her murals – Walker places black cutouts in silhouette against very large areas of white space. I thought of Franz Kline’s powerful black-and-white paintings, into which he later introduces some color – as Walker, herself, does. There are interesting natural elements in her murals, a moss-hung tree, the moon, a passing cloud, more clouds, and then there is rampant sexuality, “comely” Negresses, “massa knock me up.” Blacks gesture and fly and are hanged. Lynched.

Exhibiting her vision of slavery and racism, Walker is cruel, funny, grotesque, enigmatic. In smaller works, for instance, of cut paper and tempera on canvas, she makes black shadowgrams with titles – “Battlefield at Dusk,” “Ship,” “The Future.” It is difficult to determine what is going on in them. She composes primitive, short films with musical accompaniement – banjo, a vocal, “Pickin’ cotton all day,” a “Darkey Hymn – ‘All I Want.'” A child’s voice is heard – “I wish I were white.” With historical references, she superimposes her cutouts upon pages of scenes from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War – “The Last Delegation from Alabama in the Congress of the United States,” Ulysses S. Grant. The Grant portrait reminded me of Chattanooga, Tenn., the Battle of Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge.

Walker was born in 1969 in Stockton, Calif. Her father, Larry, is a painter, formerly chairman of the art department at the University of the Pacific and later at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She received a BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994, and is now an associate professor of visual arts at Columbia University.

Unlike such important Black artists of the past as Henry Tanner, Robert Gwathmey, William H. Johnson, Horace Pippin and Jacob Lawrence, all easel painters, Walker does not have one painting in the show.

Walker manifestly was acquainted with the collages of Romare Bearden, who grew up in Harlem and attempted to come to terms with the experience of Blacks in America. She may have been more directly influenced by Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, who recapitulated and rearticulated Western art, Pollock courageously embracing and corralling the absolute, Warhol overturning the whole damned enterprise.

The exhibit is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave at East 75th Street through Feb. 3, 2008.

Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.