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.
Maybe our delight in this copious phantasmagoria amounts to a sort of enlightened masochism. Although Cut implies that this is a form of self-wounding, Walker means to draw blood from the rest of us as well, and not just through pictures of master-slave orgies and the like. Thanks to Francis Picabia and Barbara Kruger, there may be nothing new about an artwork taking a verbally aggressive stance toward its public, but it’s hard to remember any before that addressed its viewer as “Dear you hypocritical fucking Twerp,” as Walker’s does in Letter From a Black Girl (1998), a text displayed prominently on a wall in the retrospective, not to mention on the cover of its catalogue. That charming salutation pretty well sums up the mixed feelings that Walker cultivates with such feverish tenacity, and while her work can make you feel kind of beat up on, there’s nothing quite like the jolt of being told “I hate you” by someone who really seems to mean “I love you”–the emotional up-and-down can be addictive.
It’s easy to take a single figure like Cut as paradigmatic of Walker’s vast, multifigured murals, starting with Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994), because those works, eschewing traditional hierarchical composition, are spread across the wall as concatenations of isolated figures or, more typical, tight little groups of two or three, cut from the same sheet. The most complicated of them, if not quite the largest, also gets the longest title: Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFE LIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery or “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life)” See the Peculiar Institution as never before! All cut from black paper by the able hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and leader in her Cause (1997). But the scenes it shows are comparatively tame by Walker’s standards. Sure, there’s a bit of farting and pissing going on, and a couple screwing on a rooftop–but nothing like the sadomasochism and child abuse that turn up with such regularity elsewhere in her work. For that matter, most of these pieces–unlike her later film works–may actually be a good bit less obscene in reality than they become in one’s retrospective imagination of them. In part that’s because “her characters”–as one of Walker’s savviest supporters, Hamza Walker (no relation), director of education at the Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago, put it–“shamelessly engage in the most shameless acts.” They are without shame because the silhouette technique empties Walker’s figures of all inner life–the better to stir that of their viewers. Equally, the figures are disconnected from one another. In all these pieces, there is little or no narrative connection between these figures and small groups, just a freewheeling Bruegelesque concurrence between them.
As early as 1998, Walker admitted that she was “sort of” getting tired of doing the cutouts. Around 2000 she began experimenting with abstract colored projections on the walls to which the cut-paper silhouettes were affixed. The results were not successful, on the whole: in works like Darkytown Rebellion (2001) the figures seem a bit lost amid a garish multiplicity of colors to which they have no relation. Walker once said that in her student work, “I used to avoid the face issue by just kind of mashing up different colors,” and here, likewise, the use of color seems a distraction.
Since 2004 she has been exhibiting animated films, which represent a more decisive broadening of her aesthetic–precisely because her work in the medium is formally so much rougher, less refined, than her paper cutouts, though in retrospect the multiplicity of vignettes in her murals leads naturally to the sequence of scenes in a film. The first of them, Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions, takes off from the premise that white men have become slaves to black women. 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005) is a more episodic fantasia on the fate of blacks under slavery. In these films the narrative, such as it is, is played out by hand-manipulated shadow puppets–not unlike those used by the South African artist William Kentridge in some of his films (for instance, Shadow Procession, from 1999), except that Walker handles hers in an ostentatiously crude way that makes the work feel like something produced by a brilliant but emotionally disturbed child who’s been given her first camera as a birthday present.
Above all, the imaginary world of the shadow puppets is never allowed to occupy the viewer’s attention completely. Instead, one is constantly made aware of the arbitrary manipulation (in both senses of the word) of these hapless figures by the even more shadowy figure of the person who moves them about–her hands are often visible, and in one segment of 8 Possible Beginnings, we see a young woman, presumably the artist herself or in any case her stand-in, earnestly cutting a silhouette–her model is a white man in a hat–after which an intertitle congratulates her: “Good job, Bess!” In Testimony, we even get to see a milky, viscous fluid spatter over the image, in case we didn’t get the masturbatory gist. Childish in a different sort of way is the specific form of fantasy 8 Possible Beginnings engages at one point, where the distinction between the sexes has no meaning. In one episode, a rather frail-looking master engages his handsome male slave, first in a bout of fellatio, then in anal sex–which results in the young man’s pregnancy and then the birth of their not-exactly-human offspring.
Walker, according to a leaflet at ARC, “accounts for the relationships between black and white people, master and slave, segregation and its inherent contradictions,” and “counterbalances the American official history as propagated by cinema and literature”–an essentially realist rationale for her art that’s not uncommon in commentary on her work. Such deadening verbiage strains to find edifying significance in the fraught and unruly fantasies Walker throws in our faces. All of her work makes clear, 8 Possible Beginnings just a bit more blatantly than the rest, that any basis it may have in historical or even in biological reality is completely circumstantial. Slavery becomes a metaphor for sex–and, why not, for love–as much as sex becomes a trope for slavery. Not that this lets anyone off the hook. There’s no writing off Walker’s inventions as the byproducts of a deranged imagination–as if she were some sort of black female art-world-insider counterpart to Henry Darger.
But this is just where interpretation gets tricky. “None of this is about her own fantasies,” insists the exhibition’s curator, Philippe Vergne, deputy director and chief curator at the Walker Art Center. “It is about the codes of representation and their power.” Yet any such intellectual impersonality is constantly belied by the incandescent tone of Walker’s work. And after all, how powerful could those codes be if they weren’t able to generate some pretty urgent fantasies? Likewise, another contributor to the exhibition catalogue, cultural historian Sander Gilman, works overtime to establish that attacks on Walker for pandering to racism and sexism–and it’s not surprising that they’ve come up–must be misguided because art cannot be “a mimetic mirror of the inner life of the artist,” cannot be unambiguously traced back to “the character of the artist.” But while the causal connections may be interestingly oblique and tenuous, still, the art comes from precisely what the painter and occasional critic Carroll Dunham, writing in Artforum, has called “the hostile, raunchy, ironic consciousness driving Walker’s art.”
Some of Walker’s most fascinating work consists of writing, whether embodied in vinyl lettering on a wall, as with Letter From a Black Girl, or scribbled on paper to be presented as a form of drawing either with or without any pictorial accompaniment. It would be a mistake to rely too heavily on these texts to interpret her other works–they are artworks too, posing their own hermeneutical challenges, not commentaries–but they help underscore what may be slightly more obliquely indicated by the murals, films and other pieces: that all this is intensely personal to Walker, and that precisely for this reason, it reflects her hyperawareness of context–above all the art-world context that, as the daughter of an artist, she must have been at least tangentially aware of since childhood. “I knew that the only way to gain an audience in the art world was to cloak my work in the guise of blackness,” we read on one sheet from the sometimes almost embarrassingly diaristic 1997 drawing series Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk? “I would have to make work that was so directly racial that no one could help but notice.” Since she could hardly pass as white, she would have to pass as black.
This paradoxical strategy undoubtedly explains the angry reaction Walker’s work–or rather its quick success–aroused among a number of prominent older black women artists: in her they see a black woman putting on blackface. Walker’s ruminations, however, convey an almost excruciating sincerity at odds with the canny trickster we imagine behind the insolent films and murals. But if they also suggest a calculated bid to manipulate the white, liberal art world in the interest of success, what about the fantasy, recounted elsewhere in the sequence, of seducing none other than David Duke, “to ‘bring down’…the former Klansman and almost Louisiana Senator in SCANDAL!” Well, more surprising things than that have happened.
Still, as for scandals, Walker may have caused a few, but they’ve been small change compared with the honors heaped on her. Does that mean she’s doing something so right it’s wrong? I don’t think so. Whoever her public is–and they’re not all white men like me–she does “bring us down” to dwell amid appalling desires and admit they might be or become one’s own. “But that I would fuck an avowed RACIST–not at all unusual,” writes Walker in Do You Like Creme. “Since all I want is to be loved by you And to share all that deep contradictory love I possess. Make myself your slave girl so you will make yourself my equal–if only for a minute.” Walker turns out to be a closet utopian, and it’s not her scathing humor or her obscenity that’s made her loved–it’s her perverse optimism.