History, said Stephen Dedalus, was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. For Kara Walker, history seems to be a nightmare she’s trying to enjoy, perhaps in the sense that Slavoj Zizek urges his readers to “enjoy your symptom.” Whether or not Walker succeeds in attaining this enjoyment through her work (I’ll wager she does), lots of other people certainly do. Even in this era of immense and sudden success for certain young artists, it’s hard to think of any who have come so far, so fast. A 1994 MFA graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Walker began to garner attention as soon as her work appeared in the “Selections 1994″ show at the Drawing Center in New York; the next year she produced three one-person shows, two of them in public spaces, and by 1997 the artist, then all of 27 years old, had been given a MacArthur fellowship. Her work is in the most important American museums, and the European ones that own or have exhibited her art are nothing to sneeze at either. In New York alone, she’s exhibited in the past four years at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Met and the New School, not to mention Sikkema Jenkins, the commercial gallery in Chelsea that handles her work. And the art world shows no sign of Walker fatigue: A traveling retrospective of her work, My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, which originated earlier this year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, recently closed at ARC/Museé d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, where I saw it, and where it was called Mon Ennemi, Mon Frère, Mon Bourreau, Mon Amour. The retrospective, which includes three films, a dozen large-scale wall works and hundreds of drawings, watercolors and small paintings, has now arrived at the Whitney (through February 3), after which it will finish its tour at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (March 2-June 8).
Why is it that museums can’t get enough of Walker’s work? Early on, Walker found the holy grail of the contemporary art lover, an instantly recognizable amalgamation of technique and content not previously associated with any other artist–the aesthetic equivalent of what marketing gurus call a unique selling proposition. What struck the eye from the first were Walker’s grand-scale figurative compositions made with cut-out black silhouettes affixed directly to the wall, and the neat way this folksy, traditional and domestic technique, expanded to the scale of a public mural and executed with a breathtaking precision and elegance, meshed with the subject matter: the violence of American black slavery recast as a perverse sexual fantasy. Here was Uncle Tom’s Cabin as it might have been envisaged by a disciple of the Marquis de Sade, or Mandingo remade as a Matisse cutout, if Matisse had been a student of Aubrey Beardsley rather than of Gustave Moreau. The ironies thus generated are endless, delectably so: the use of a graphic technique that ruthlessly reduces everything to the polarity of black and white to evoke moral and psychological ambiguity and doubt, for instance, and favoring a mode of representation that makes it impossible to represent skin color in addressing questions of race.
The intensity of Walker’s ambivalence about identity is evident even in one of the simplest of these mural silhouettes: a work from 1998 called Cut functions as a portrait of the artist, the “emancipated negress” we encounter in the archly elaborate titles of some of her other works. Here, the gesture of cutting that’s the basis of Walker’s silhouettes is given a surprising twist. With a pair of girlish braids and wearing a big flowing skirt, the figure in Cut seems to be rising into the air, kicking her heels together like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz using her ruby slippers to go home. One outstretched hand clutches a straight razor, which has slit the other wrist so deeply that the hand, with its daintily spread fingers, is hanging on to the forearm by just a thread. Blood gushes up like a feathery geyser from the wrist, and a couple of puddles of it have gathered on the ground beneath her. Then one notices that the hand that holds the razor has somehow been slashed too–blood plumes from it as well, though less profusely–and for that matter the razor blade is hanging from its handle in the same way, as if it had even cut itself. This is an image of self-laceration as ecstasy beyond the dreams of your average paraphiliac.
What’s important, though, is that the blade that’s used to make the art is equated with the blade that draws the artist’s own blood. Cut is the kind of expressionist melodrama Edvard Munch or Oskar Kokoschka would have understood, though in their day the creative artist could not be his own femme fatale. Yet its execution (the word suddenly becomes a strange sort of pun) is the opposite of Expressionist style as we normally conceive it–not disordered but precise, not turbulent but cool, not messy but clean, not demonstrative but formal, even downright prim. Walker draws blood, but her art is dry. She presents her work as concerning self-control in emotional extremity–where self-control does not necessarily mean keeping quiet but rather the opposite, being capable of a stylized gesture so extreme that it can only freak out its witness with its sublime indifference to self-sacrifice. The most extreme gesture in Walker’s art, however, is one that is shown in this allegory of her self-conception as an artist, though it is nearly everywhere else in her oeuvre: the insistent equation of polymorphous carnal pleasure with the perverse power structure of slave society.