October 2007, Kara Walker @ Whitney Museum of American Art

October 2007, Kara Walker @ Whitney Museum of American Art
Kara Walker Darkytown Rebellion, 2001 Cut paper and projection on wall 15 x 33 feet Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co. New York

Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love
Whitney Museum of American Art
Oct. 11, 2007 through Feb. 3, 2008

Sikkema Jenkins & Co.: New Work
Oct. 20, 2007 through Nov. 21, 2007

Drawing from testimonial slave narratives, minstrel shows and historical novels such as “The Clansman,” by Thomas Dixon, Jr. and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Life Among the Lowly,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) but with descriptions like “small black girl performing oral sex on a white boy,” “Confederate sucking black breasts before the battle,” and “small black boy enlarged penis,” these are stereotypes that racists are identified with making.

Yet, pre-Civil War South exposés of taboos of sexual promiscuity and interracial desire sets the stage for Walker’s unsettling characters. Using overhead projectors, seductive, silhouetted gels, visual collages, abusing existing narratives from America’s past, she catches the viewers unaware as they transform wonderful large rooms into rainbows of color.

Artists are usually considered to be activists for peace amongst mankind. Maybe from the African American’s point of view, Walker’s work is like a worst case scenario of a bad white art show. I asked her about this.

Ms. Walker is a young, tall woman with large, dark eyes and tawny skin. She dresses in soft, flowy clothing and embraces each question with complete understanding. She responded to the effect that she knew what she was doing.

Certainly, Chrissie Iles, the Whitney Museum’s Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Curator-in-Charge and Philippe Vergne, Deputy Director and Senior Curator, and Yasmil Raymond, Assistant Curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis would agree that Walker’s traveling retrospective provokes the kind of international debate that makes American art so critical.

Stopping also at the ARC/Musee d”Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris from June 20th to September 9, 2007, again curated by Philippe Vergne, using the Victorian period’s genteel cut-paper silhouettes on canvas in a shadow play of racism, sexuality and violence, Walker examines what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “color line.”

The Whitney Biennial is the most famous barometer of contemporary art in the free world. Modernism at this museum has uplifted traditional aesthetics into new conceptual heights. Art by such artists as Jenny Holzer, Bruce Nauman, and Lawrence Weiner has evolved out of modern masters such as Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol.

More complex than the traditional still life, their symbols of everyday life took art a step further, incorporating post-industrial society use of photographic imagery, commercial art logos, kinetics, and fluorescent lights to sell products. I wondered whether Kara Walker saw herself as a scholar or as an artist? She answered that she was an artist first.
I asked Kara about where she went to school. She answered that she received her Bachelors of Fine Art from the Atlanta College of Art (in 1991) and her Masters of Fine Art from Rhode Island School of Design (in 1994). At the age of nineteen, Kara Walker was introduced to the work of conceptual artist, Adrian Piper. Her photographs, word pieces and sculptures addressing race and gender. In a paper titled, “Black/White (grey) notes on Adrian Piper, Walker asked herself: “I’m not an Other in some eyes...”

With titles such as “Search for ideas supporting the Black Man as a work of Modern Art/Contemporary Painting; a death without end, and an appreciation of the Creative Spirit of Lynch Mobs,” in truth Kara Walker’s saint figure is the ancient “Negress,” the dark goddess.

Today she lives in New York where she is Associate Professor of Visual Arts at Columbia University. By the way, since then Ms. Walker has created more than thirty room-size installations and hundreds of drawings. Actually, her New York debut was at the prestigious Drawing Center in 1994.

Annie Philbin, who now heads the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles where Kara Walker’s first American museum survey is scheduled to open this March, and James Elaine discovered her and asked if she could transform her first silhouettes into a larger scale wall piece. “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart,” was the first of its kind.

As an artist myself, I find imagery comes out of my unconscious mind. Damien Hirst, Matthew Barney, and Chris Ofili shock the public with real elephant dung as paint, rotting animalia and the male reproductive system. When it gets too personal, however, can the artist truly vent their creative urges? I asked Kara whether she was able to when there were all of these historical venues being explored. She answered that whatever she created seemed completely organic.

Even on a subtle level, having a “long ago” history where there was government sanctioned slavery and negligence, rape, pedophilia and separation from family were commonplace. Why wouldn’t it be projected in one’s art? We teach art in our schools and people open up and all kinds of things come out. “Bureau of Refugees, Freeman and Abandoned Lands-Records, Miscellaneous Papers,” and such is the effect of everyone’s co-dependence.




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Claudia Schwalb

Schwalb graduated from Pratt Institute in 1974.  She was an emerging artist during the Minimalist movement in the 1970's.  She was raised in New York City during the Abstract Expressionist era. Claudia was the youngest artist ever to have a solo exhibition at The Clocktower/P.S.1 in 1977.  Claudia went on to write for Barbara Rose's Journal of Art and was one of the Contributing Editors of Cover/Arts New York along with John Yau and Judd Tully (Editor-at-Large for Arts & Auction).  She was Curator of the Knitting Factory and a television news transcriber for Peter Jennings' World News Tonight.  Subsequently, Claudia transcribed two movies, "Refuge" and "Interview with the Dalai Lama" which played at the Quad last year.  claudschwa@aol.com

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