Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Kara Walker, revisited

February 13, 2008 - 11:12am -- Carol Diehl

Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love closed at the Whitney Museum in New York on February 3rd. It can be seen at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles from March 2nd to June 8th.

Following are notes from a conversation I had while surveying the exhibition at the Whitney with J.P., a friend who I used to perform with at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a black poet who makes a point of going beyond racial content in her work. As you'll see, the conversation is often contradictory and comes to no conclusion, but is presented here simply as fuel for discussion, which may be the biggest contribution of the exhibition itself.

C.D. & J.P.: Everything is, like the subject, black and white: the images, the message. There’s no subtlety.

J.P.: Is it possible that her early success made it difficult for her work to change and grow? The American culture reflects arrested adolescence. It’s the way an adolescent would view sexuality.

C.D.: It reminds me of the pictures of penises the boys in junior high used to draw on their desks.

J.P.: It appears she’s coming out of her own psychic distress. If her intent is to provoke, then she succeeds.

C.D.: But to what end? What are we supposed to do with the feelings she stirs up? Does she change anything?

J.P.: She signifies blackness to the audience who is seeing “the other.” In that way it reinforces the separation. On the other hand, she’s witnessing, testifying, bringing out what’s hidden. It’s compelling on a visual level, moves like a narrative. And she succeeds in throwing us back to that time, that moment. The figures are the same size as our bodies,

C.D.: Our shadows make us cutouts as well. We’re part of the piece.

J.P.: We’re the inheritors of these crimes. And we’re creating our own equally brutal history, with what we’re doing to the Iraqis, and to nature. And in art…look at Damien Hirst and his shark at the Met. Here’s a being that swam, lived, and worked—a creature greater than all of Damien Hirst’s parts, and one that’s not allowed peace in his death. Damien is like the devil, and his last name should be “hurts” rather than Hirst. The shark has no rights, it’s a commodity.

C.D.: Is racism Walker’s commodity?

J.P.: She is a product of this history.

C.D.: In one way or another, we are all the children of slavery. PC art allows people to get off too easily. If you’re black, the message reinforces feelings of victimization—while whites see this show or collect the work and therefore feel absolved of something, the way people in the Roman Catholic Church used to buy indulgences.

J.P.: This is her present experience, but she’s stating the same problem over and over. The most intimate moment is when you see the newspaper pictures of the senators from Mississippi, the white slave owners.

C.D.: They’re the most complex—and the true victims, because their psyches are twisted.

J.P.: Walker achieves something complex even though it feels simple. It works psychologically, and feels claustrophobic.

C.D.: After you spend time with it, the atmosphere is suffusing, suffocating; you can almost feel what it was like to be alive then. In that way it’s more powerful than I expected. However there are no deep or complex issues at work here; it’s simply a matter of the good guys and the bad guys, titillating images no matter who's behind them. I fear that art that relies on stereotype works on base emotions and ultimately only reinforces the differences.

I’m more interested in art that doesn’t borrow energy from sensationalism but has power on its own. We'll know that the art world has overcome its innate sexism and racism when the Whitney, MoMA, or the Guggenheim features a black female artist whose work has nothing to do with gender or race.
If you saw the exhibition—or even if you didn’t, since a no-show by an art-interested New Yorker is a statement in itself—please post a long or short review as a Comment below.
Holland Cotter in The New York Times

Christian Viveros-Faune in The Village Voice

Howard Halle in Time Out New York

Jerry Saltz in New York, republished on ArtNet

Hilton Als in The New Yorker (profile)


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
I am a person of color and for whatever reason did not feel I had to go to see the Kara Walker show, I guess it seemed somewhat preachy (from work I had seen) and I was just not in the mood to be preached to at this time in my life.........thank you.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
My ansestors were French Huganaughts who were terribly persecuted. Humans have historically heaped misery and terror on each other. We can either sit around and suck our thumbs seeking restitution and revenge or we can get on with our lives and vow that we will not join in the carnage. Kara seems enormously talented I just think she needs to put history behind her.

"Damien is like the devil, and his last name should be 'hurts' rather than Hirst. The shark has no rights, it’s a commodity."
Oh God, I love that. I really do. Absolutely brilliant. I'm ashamed to admit I included him as a "interest" on my profile because of all the people who had him listed. There are a handful of artists I have a difficult time giving a fair shake to. Hirst is one. After I learned about that dog shooting Tom Otterness is another. If you absolutely must shoot something be like Chris Burden and have yourself shot- don't take it out on a dog.

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