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Artist’s works focus on legacy of slavery in American life

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Artist’s works focus on legacy of slavery in American life
Murals by Kara Walker are displayed as part of the show “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. Is Compelled to Present the Most Astounding and Important Painting Show of the Fall Art Show Viewing Season!” at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. gallery in New York. (Photo: Susan Saccoccia)

Black and white dominate the palette of Kara Walker, an artist whose room-size murals, sculptures, videos and works on paper focus on the still-corrosive legacy of slavery in American life.

On view in major museums worldwide are her wall-size murals peopled by silhouetted figures of the Old South, with black and white characters intertwined in violent, subservient and obscene acts. In 2014, Walker’s 35-foot high, monumental mammy-sphinx carved out of sugar entitled, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” turned her into a celebrity well beyond the art world.

Fame is neither slowing nor toning Walker down, as a recent show of new works at her gallery Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, makes clear. The show’s 22 murals and smaller works bristled with torrid energy and Walker’s characteristic force, style and humor.

All the works were created this summer, except for the show’s 201-word title, which she composed in May, wryly predicting “the finest selection of artworks by an African-American living woman artist this side of the Mississippi.”

In a more straightforward artist’s statement, Walker voices weariness at being singled out, writing, “I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model,’” and asking, “How many ways can a person say racism is the real bread and butter of our American mythology… .”

Walker, 47, is not the first black female artist to investigate race, gender, sexuality and violence in America, but she is in the vanguard of a new generation whose distinguished lineage includes Loïs Mailou Jones, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Adrian Piper and Lorraine O’Grady.

Three years after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design (MFA ’94), Walker became, at age 28, one of the youngest recipients of a MacArthur “genius” grant. Now living and working in New York City, she holds the Tepper Chair in the Visual Arts at Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts.

Drawing from historic archives, pop culture, folklore and her imagination, Walker uses traditional, manual techniques such as hand-cut silhouettes, puppetry and drawing to create surreal images that recast the familiar and make what is forgotten or denied visible — often sensationally so.

Walker will launch another large-scale public work at the fourth Prospect New Orleans contemporary art triennial, “Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp,” which runs from Nov. 18 through Feb. 25 and coincides with the city’s 300th birthday. Visitors will travel by ferry to Algiers Point, once a holding site for newly arrived slaves, where Walker’s wagon-mounted, steam-powered riverboat calliope will pipe a composition written for the installation by a fellow MacArthur recipient, jazz pianist Jason Moran.

The recent show in New York presented drawings on paper and linen created with ink, blade, glue and oil stick that varied in scale from 12-by-10-foot murals to notebook-size works. Like most of her works, they are populated by characters and tell stories that evoke historic periods or conjure desolate post-apocalyptic landscapes.

In her silhouettes, these characters are archetypes—the southern belle, the white landowner, the slave children with pigtails and overalls, the mamma and the field hand. In the more intimate art of drawing, these characters become individuals.

Walker often fills her pictures with figures; but this show began with a solo portrait of a woman, the first of three on view. Rendered on linen brushed in red pigment, the small study portrays a face taut with impatience and suffering. Another, later in the show, entitled “The Laundress (is Done),” is a watercolor of a young woman slumped over with weariness.

A cast of some 80 characters populates the pivotal piece of the show, “Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” an 11-by-18-foot ink-and-collage drawing that alludes to Christ’s entry into suffering and death. Near the top, three tiny figures dangle from a tree limb, echoing the image of Christ crucified between two criminals. The middle figure is tied in a noose, like a lynch victim. Below, oblivious and unchanged, humanity goes about its bad and good business. Whirling in a gyre-like circle are assorted figures drawn from centuries of history—Klansmen, carpetbaggers, soldiers, men resembling Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass, and near the center, a black man raising his shackled hands in prayer.

Characters are usually active in Walker’s images, inflicting and bearing pain as they move in a loosely horizontal procession or rotate around a central figure. Some of these scenes call to mind the surreal paintings of humanity at its most monstrous by 16th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch.

“The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (after Delacroix, Kienholz)” roughly 10 feet by 11 feet in size, is a nightmarish revenge fantasy in which bikini-clad women and toddlers go about wreaking havoc. Its title and content recall a 1827 painting by Eugène Delacroix depicting the legendary last king of Assyria, who after learning he has been conquered, reclines in a divan and watches his subjects destroy each other. Walker also credits American artist Edward Kienholz (1927-1924), whose installations and sculptures fiercely critiqued social injustices, including racism.

Walker is steeped in the mainstream traditions of Western art, and like Chicago-based painter Kerry James Marshall, she freely incorporates these traditions to expand and deepen the story of African American life and art.

Among these traditions is the history painting, and in “The (Private) Memorial Garden of Grandison Harris,” Walker endows a former slave, Grandison Harris (1816-1911) with an ironic tribute. Owned by the Georgia Medical College, Harris robbed graves to supply the school with cadavers. After gaining his freedom, he continued the job as an employee. The 8-by-12-foot diptych, a spare composition in black, tan, grey and white, shows him going about his nightly work observed by his master and a tot with a toy bull.

In “Future Looks Bright,” an oil-and-ink drawing on an oval of linen, a turbaned woman looks out in alarm from behind a crystal ball that seems about to explode.

Another work offers a note of optimism. In “A Spectacle,” ghost-like male power figures hover over a black girl and boy and Native American girl; but with fists raised and banners flying, the children march ahead.

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