Kara Walker, “American Primitive”
Brent Sikkema Gallery
530 W 22nd St NYC
through October 13
Kara Walker is a trip. I imagine that probably 75 per cent of the people encountering her work don’t get her wicked sense of humor. Her work has developed a unique sardonic tone which is underpinned in this show by fragmented diaristic musings in postmodern form and more “primitive” fabrications in paper, canvas, puppet show video and other low- tech presentations. She makes her points exquisitely vague and simultaneously, insistently, historically and politically specific. To use old-fashioned street vernacular, she’s,” doing the dozens” with her audience, pulling legs all over the place but playing as serious as sin. Slavery was a sin but misunderstanding this work to be just about that would be a worse one.
So how does one proceed to put forth a historical fact (morphed into customary emancipation narrative) like the subjugation of multiple generations of human beings in the form of a joke and expect to get away with it? The irony of this work doesn’t escape us. It chases after our suppressed mix of longing for retribution, resolution, absolution, and anger and stirs it up into a gleeful whirlwind. Has Walker ever used tornadoes in her work? Some of the word/drawings in this show have the gloomy yet charged palette of before/after the storm. On one amorphous composition I noted, she sloppily paints “Blathering on and on about her goddamed history and our place in it” The relationship of hers to ours is significant here. Does she mean her specific personal experience, inherited narratives attached to her, her ownership of these or rejection of them? Or maybe she wants to make light of “our” fatigue with this particular tack? One of the things I love about Walker as an artist is that she is so aware of the fallacies contained within her visual representations of the unrepresentable along with their critical reception or rejection over her career.
She includes large collaged paintings in this show, a form I hadn’t seen used by her before. Her trademark paper silhouettes are pasted to these messy, mostly white -washed canvases with bumps and erasures, texture and blankness. The seemed frieze like to me, but also crafty, like decoupaged pages from scrapbooks worked up to a somewhat monumental scale. Two small paper sculptures had the same crafty, not quite childlike effect.
In the back room of the gallery the artist presented a video based on a historic (19th century?) race riot intertwined with snatches of what looked like shadow puppet evocations of books like The Color Purple or Beloved. I really didn’t want to know the exact sources since Walker’s work looks the least attractive to me through this type of determinist lens. The video was scored with, to my ear, an ambiguously authentic ragtime melody, which I felt hit just the right note for this show.
melody, which I felt hit just the right note for this show.
Walker will be presenting a project characteristically titled The Painter is the colonizing entity. How do Paintings understand the concept of liberty? And who will teach them?
at the New Museum from September 25th.