Friday, June 3, 2011

Racism Revisited

by Drew Martin

I recently read Jerry Saltz's review for New York Magazine of Kara Walker's current shows at two New York galleries. I printed the article and read the hardcopy, which noted there were 23 comments but only two are shown on my sheets.

One remarks:

I always find it curious when I hear some folks expound about much baggage they bring to her work - so much pseudo-intellectual analysis, and this and that...

I was intrigued by that honest response to Saltz's expounding and although I am not a fan of Walker's artwork, I thought I would visit both of her exhibitions with fresh eyes to find some enthusiasm for her and try to see beyond the hype. Most importantly, I really wanted to question biases. Her in-your-face product is not the kind of work that encourages this, in fact, it does quite the opposite. But I like to understand why I do or do not like something.

On Tuesday I went to the Lehman Maupin gallery at 201 Chrystie Street. It is a very cool space, with a balcony view of the main gallery. Walker's most awkward work is her filmed puppetry. The main, cavernous room is devoted to one of these films, depicting rapings and such (pictured above). A much smaller room upstairs shows a brief, looping video of Walker picking a guitar and trying to sing. Apparently Saltz enjoyed that she was "pantless" and was focused on "glimpses between her legs." Personally, my immediate reaction was to sigh and tell myself there is much better talent in the world to devote this kind of space to than such a self-indulgent, YouTube-quality production.

Saltz promised a more powerful show at the Sikkema Jenkins gallery at 530 W 22nd Street so I walked there in the blistering heat on Wednesday. I think I was going there to confirm my convictions but that immediately changed when I passed through their clean, transparent doors and was enveloped by the calm, chilled air. As an aside, I must add that the gallery is quality, a beautiful space and with the right tone of lighting.

It is hard not to be impressed by what Walker has created. The scale of everything is immense...huge sails of creamy paper and well-made black and white frames with panes of glass the size of storefront windows. This is a big production show, with a lot of calculated support behind it. No artist would (or could) create such works without being assured (he or) she would be exhibited and that the pieces would sell like hotcakes.

At times I did find the scale of everything distracting. The easy look of the drawings makes them seem like sketchbook doodles that have been sized up simply for a wow factor. Not only is this part of the territory, but with many artists it is the process. Whenever I see something blown up with the size matters attitude, I like to think of Salvador DalĂ­'s Persistence of Memory hanging on the wall at MoMA. It is so small and yet it had such an impact on the history of art because of its concept and quality.

Saltz likens Kara's previous work to Francisco Goya's The Disasters of War and the current show to Pablo Picasso's Guernica but Walker's work lacks Goya's depth and Picasso's vision. Instead, her drawings at Sikkema Jenkins actually remind me more of Honoré Daumier, especially because of their social commentary and the bulbous characters.

Although the forms are cartoonish, I was impressed by Walker's complicated layering and subtracting of charcoal and pencil, especially the broad strokes from erasers that bring back the white of the paper to highlight certain areas and to contrast the pitch-black shapes. These drawings are not just done with her hand but with her whole arm in full swing.

There is a conflict between her slightly goofy forms and display of abstraction, which reminds me of William De Kooning. It would be nice to see Walker jettison the caricatures for pure abstraction and let her stormy gestures speak for themselves. She is certainly positioned in the artworld to do so.

At Sikkema Jenkins, I got past Walker's dependence on racism as a theme...or maybe I simply became numb to it because she constantly hits you over the head with it. Perhaps there is something conceptual to be said of her exploiting the exploited.

Goya and Picasso had so much more range in subjects and styles. Their horrors were matched with beauty and love. They showed us a full range of emotions and perspectives. When an artist such as Walker has this narrow a focus, one has to ask what more is she capable of. Saltz wrote that her new drawings have "taken leaps forward" but it actually feels like "more of the same" just a different medium.

I like what the minimalist sculptor Anne Truitt wrote in Daybook, that she would not want to create cathartic work and have to face it again, frozen on a canvas, as did Frida Kahlo with her physical and emotional suffering. Goya and Picasso, with The Disasters of War and Guernica (respectively), were coming from a very different place...reacting to their immediate environment and threats: Goya's "I saw this" and Picasso's reply to the German officer's inquiring about who painted the canvas, "You did."

Walker is doing something very different though. As a privileged art professor at Columbia University and an artworld darling, she is stretching for the material and knows what she has as an marketable artist. I once read a remark by her that her silhouettes "saved her" (from obscurity). One would now only expect Walker to keep racism alive and center stage in her work, but personally I would like to see her make a true leap and explore multi-racial respect and love. But then again, I do question whether this is simply my wanting the horrors of the past to simply go away.