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The black eye

The lead story last week in the syndicated column News of the Weird was about how "Great Britain's premiere art award, the Turner Prize, was won in December by painter Chris Ofili, whose signature finishing touch on his work is a few blotches of elephant manure. Ofili's centerpiece...bears the title The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars Part 2." The paragraph went on to describe: "Runner-up submissions were videos of...a couple's nasty breakup in a crowded restaurant, as well as a sculptor's work of mangled genitalia."

A few seasons back on 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace did not one, but two exposes on contemporary art. His bent: basically, how damn weird and controversial it's all gotten. Seems the catalyst for the story was all the hubbub over Damien Hirst's vivisected cows and whole sharks in huge glass cases of formaldehyde. Wallace walked around London galleries scratching his grizzled head and furrowing his bushy brow, disconcerted at every turn by what he saw as the hack work of young shockmeisters.

So it's all just too bizarre now, huh? Too incendiary, too intentionally stupid, too calculating--anything but pretty or easy to swallow. Thus, once in a while, syndicated columns and prime-time television get hold of this form of art and turn it into, well, news of the weird.

Geez. Far as I can tell, the best art hasn't been easy for decades now. Do the civilians really care about just how jarring or tweaked contemporary art can be? They have no context by which to measure it, since they don't hang out in galleries or take art-history classes. How can Bubba, sitting in his La-Z-Boy through 60 Minutes after an all-day NFL orgy, get a realistic grasp on Hirst and his floating cow parts? Wallace may as well give Bubba a scant 15-minute tour of the planet Mars, and that was the intrepid reporter's not very fair point--that this stuff is hopelessly opaque. Every Lowest Common Denominator-type that peruses News of the Weird will read about Ofili's elephant dung in this single, terribly off-the-cuff paragraph, which will just drive their prejudice home. "That art stuff is freaky. I don't want any part of it." Never mind that Ofili and Hirst are damn good at what they do.

Kara Walker is one of the standard controversial types--a talked-about new artist who may or may not have a scintillating career ahead of her, depending on the market and the whims of the dealers and critics and so on. This is becoming an old story now--to art lovers, at least--in the proliferation of ambitious, talented types. Visual artists, especially those based in the hubs of New York, Los Angeles, and London, have a precarious rock-star-like road to negotiate. Pick your route: Instant blinding stardom destined for a big crash, or a slow build to mild celebrity, or a lifetime of respectable obscurity.

Walker, a winner of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant a few years back, is only 29; her stomping ground is the East Coast, and her write-ups are mostly favorable. For her, the game's still wide open, her placement in the overall scheme uncertain. Scholars and critics have staged panel discussions about her work, with little headway made about the whys of what she does, even after she explains it. So she's a shooting star today. Then, who knows?

But the controversy surrounding Walker's MO digs far deeper than the mere visual (sliced cows) or material (elephant manure) shock value. You could call her method either refreshing or repellent, and this time, the controversy makes sense, as she's brought race into the mix. The art hounds would much rather discuss sharks and crap than the horridly sticky subject of race. Many contend that this young black artist is a closet racist, that she glorifies and exaggerates the cartoony stereotypes in historic black culture instead of debunking it the way a dutiful black artist should. ("Artist" and "should" in the same sentence? Hmm.)

The most compelling thing about Walker's work is that however disturbing, it shows a brand of reserve and mystery not so common to other young artists' work. While the subject matter is punchy--always focused on the inherent violence and racism of the Old South--the presentation is as aloof and formal as a Victorian calling card. Giant black-paper cutouts, which create jet silhouettes against pristine white walls, evoke the mossy society of the antebellum South. Black people are shown in scenarios as wrenching, sexually abusive, and quasi-dignified as, well, as things were for them back then. The lines of the paper are razor-clean, and the weight of the subject threatens to slip into the whimsy of the high-society medium (landed gentry often amused themselves at parties by making silhouette portraits). The dichotomy creates a wonderful tension--the epic pastoral barely veiling its homegrown atrocity--one far too subtle ever to make it into News of the Weird ("Also in November, a Manhattan gallery unveiled the works of a young black artist who either ironically or actually romanticizes old Southern slavery!").

For the first time in decades, we're faced with life-sized evocations of Sambo and Uncle Tom and Mammy and the like, who debase and undermine themselves, as well as the hoop-skirted Scarletts and cravat-wearing Ashleys who so gleefully fornicate with them. It's hard to look at, yet at its base, it's Hollywood-slick mythology.

Her room-filling 1998 piece, a solid introduction to Walker's aesthetic, is at the MAC right now; it's titled Presenting Negro Scenes Drawn Upon My Passage Through the South and Reconfigured for the Benefit of Enlightened Audiences Wherever Such May Be Found, By Myself, Missus K.E.B. Walker, Colored. Apparently MAC director Rick Brettell lobbied for this one as well as two of Walker's newest works on paper, and the move was a good one; installed, the larger piece is formidable. It circles the entire second room at the MAC (the first room holds a single Walker silhouette and the two gouache paintings), and while it doesn't play out like a linear narrative, all together it hits you like one. The separate dioramas slide into one another quite gracefully, the sharp black cutting the white walls with liquid precision, and it really doesn't matter where in the room you start. You come back to the same point again and again. In Walker's interpretation, the Old South was oddball, anguishing, animal-like, and celebratory. She never picks a sure side; here, a black woman hangs laundry on a line, smiling as her master performs cunnilingus on her, over there, a young black girl flails in the air with a trumpet lodged between her legs. Here, a black couple take their place for a formal dance reel, while over there, a black man spits blood and drips ooze from his eyes while he grasps a mandolin and a girl winds up the toy turn-key piercing his spine. Damp moss and reedy cattails and implied moonlight and dirt, cut from the black paper, deftly set the background scene, while her characters bury things and screw horses and hang by their necks from billowing sheets. All allegory, each scatological, objective, and reverent. In the meantime, she's also conjuring gender, family, and generation issues. The self-degradation and insidious grins her characters carry flit from man to woman, child to old person, white to black.

If you're searching for Walker's pedigree in all this, for her right to so slyly pull the rug out from under us, you'll find it twofold. One, she grew up in Atlanta, so she's no stranger to the Southern zeitgeist, including the kind that stems from 19th-century racism. Two, her MFA is stamped by the Rhode Island School of Design, so it's not as though she's limited to such craft and folkways--she clearly chose this medium.

And in the end, it's the silhouette effect that makes it all work so well; if these were straight-up paintings, the irony and confrontation would lose their subtlety, which is the heart of their power. The silhouette achieves two ends: a filter of formality between "us" and "them," and a voyeur's delight in the obscene. First glance doesn't reveal enough. You have to gaze for a while to absorb all the details, and by that time, your confusion over how to feel about it is in full swing. Obviously, the artist has no interest in leading our emotions, no more than she'll bend her own attitudes about race to the conventions of black society. She may feel ambivalent, and knows we might too. She'd rather mull it over publicly, present her fantasies as high art rather than commit to a single viewpoint, and we all just have to live with that.

Mike Wallace had better not touch this one.

Kara Walker's works are at the MAC, 3120 McKinney Avenue, through February 14. Admission is free. Call (214) 953-1212.


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