April 2008, Kara Walker @ Hammer Museum

   Kara Walker, Cut, 1998, Cut paper on wall. 88 x 54 in. (223.5 x 137.2 cm).
 Collection Donna and Cargill MacMillan.
 Courtesy Hammer Museum, LA

Kara Walker
My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love
Hammer Museum, LA
March 2 through June 8, 2008

Call Kara Walker’s work provocative. Call it explicit. Heck, call it exploitative. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that you will most definitely be calling it something—except safe that is. That’s the brilliant thing about Walker, arguably one of the most sensational contemporary forces in art; you’ll have a strong opinion about her one way or the other. And for an artist who takes on the subject of race and gender politics, just the fact that she’s sparked a dialogue is half the battle.

 Kara Walker, Trilogy, 2001
 Mixed media and paper on canvas board. 9 x 12 in. (22.9 x 30.5 cm).
 Collection Jean-Pierre and Rachel Lehmann
 Courtesy Hammer Museum, LA

Think of Walker’s current exhibition "My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love" at UCLA’s Hammer Museum (organized by Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center) a sort of “Best Of” for the California-born, New York-based artist. The sprawling, comprehensive collection features drawings, paintings, projections, video installations, and of course, Walker’s beloved/infamous cut paper silhouettes. For a lesser artist, such a breadth of materials could easily make for an unfocused, overwhelming exhibit. To her credit, however, Walker keeps things completely cohesive, never losing her knack for wrapping shocking and poignant narratives in beautiful, skillfully crafted packages.

  Kara Walker
 Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs
 of One Young Negress and Her Heart
, 1994
 Cut paper on wall. 13 x 50 ft. (4 x 15.2 m). Collection The Museum of Modern Art, Gift of
 the Speyer Family Foundation in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis.
 Courtesy Hammer Museum, LA

Often times, contemporary art is discredited because it favours content over aesthetics. This is certainly not the case for Walker, who wields an Exacto with the deftness and ease of Daumier with his pen, or Rembrandt with a brush. Her cut paper works, for which she is most recognized, are as elegant as their content is ripe with transgression. In her monumental installations and cycloramas of silhouettes, such as Darkytown Rebellion and The End of Uncle Tomand the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, the beauty of this traditional Victorian art form is quickly overshadowed by the antics of the characters, exaggerated black stereotypes. Figures with jutting mouths and haywire braids appear in shocking tableaux. Scenes of flatulence, sodomy, defecation, rape, and amputation are commonplace in Walker’s body of work. Included is Walker’s prototype piece, Gone: An Historical of a Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, an at once disarming and disheartening narrative that perfectly embodies her brand of imagery that is humorous but not laughable, lovely but appalling. In viewing this work, which marked her artistic debut in 1994, it is hardly surprising that three years later, at the tender age of twenty-eight, Walker received the MacArthur “Genius” Award.

 Kara Walker, Philadelphia, 1996,
 Gouache on paper. 80 ½ x 51 ½ in. (204.5 x 130.8 cm).
 Courtesy The Dakis Joannou Collection, Athens and
 Hammer Museum, LA

Perhaps it is her lighthearted treatment of such woeful and emotional subjects and situations that cause many to attack Walker’s work; however, as the artist has often explained, such juxtaposition is an honest reaction to the dichotomy she feels being a contemporary women looking into the murky, undefined depths of history. Even her silhouette format is symbolic of the fact that, try as she might, she can never get that close to the historical truth. Rather, she can only get a two-dimensional sense of it from her perspective.

 Kara Walker, Emancipated on Tour, 2000
 Cut paper and projection on wall. 9 x 11 in. (22.9 x 27.9 cm).
 Courtesy the artist, Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. and Hammer
 Museum, LA

What is, however, black and white (pun intended) is the raw emotion Walker’s work inherently gleans from it viewers. Upon experiencing videos (brilliantly created with puppets) like Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions, which depict a vengeful slave performing sex acts on her hanged master, or Slavery! Slavery! in which a child has his foot cut off by a master after he witnesses an affair between himself and the boy’s mother, had viewers walking away in disgust, crying, or shaking in anger. Whether it was in the form of upset, sympathy, or enlightened realization, a sincere emotion arose from the viewer, spawning commentary on an ever-prevalent issue.

 Kara Walker, A Work on Progress, 1998
 Cut paper on wall. 69 x 80 in. (175.3 x 203.2 cm).
 Collection of Judie and Howard Ganek.
 Courtesy Hammer Museum, LA

So perhaps Walker revisits subjects that African Americans (or anyone for that matter) aren’t ready to view. Maybe she makes use of derogatory images of black people. Regardless, what makes Kara Walker so successful is that she takes ownership of her conflicted feelings about the past. She takes full responsibility of her version of the truth, her re-imagination of history. And if there was any doubt about her consciousness of the black experience (although how can there be?), all one needs to do is read the body of text installed in one gallery, entitled Letter From a Black Girl (which begins, “Dear you hypocritical fucking Twerp”). In it, the author writes, “Before, when there was a before, an upon a time I was a blank space defined in contrast to your POSITIVE…I have to thank you for forgetting to stick your neck out for me after I craned my neck so often in your arms.” Touché.

Ashley Tibbits

After several years working as one of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s primary visual arts journalists, Ashley Tibbits now lends her words to such West Coast sources as Flavorpill LA, ArtWeek, and RealTalk LA among others.  When she isn’t judging the work of others, Ashley is developing her own mixed media/photography collection and praying that other critics will be write really nice things about it.   


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