October 3, 2012 Repository 11: Kara Walker at Reed College Posted In: contemporary art, culture, perspective

“You should definitely stay and try to talk to her after the reception….she’s only three years older than you…and she went to RISD”. These are kind and encouraging words from my husband regarding the lecture I am attending this evening with Kara Walker. While I appreciate the idea of talking to her, I am an introvert and more shy than a snail on my toddler’s finger. My response to him, “I won’t have anything to say.” Which is pure baloney, but like all major news stories or reporting and interviewing, let alone getting to know you conundrums – how do you squeeze it all in a 45-second hello?

In lieu of what I would love (an actual conversation), some thoughts on Kara Walker’s art work:

Firstly I think she was and is very brave – she’s not skirting around an issue and I admire that a great deal. WOW. Also the exhibits and shows that have celebrated her work in the past 6 years have been so impressive from an institutional standpoint, not to mention a lot of work done – brava! Not to mention the fact that she is a mom too – double brava!

As for the actual work on display, some beautifully executed offset lithos and screen prints, etchings, cutouts and a 17-minute long video called “Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale.” Generally speaking I think her work is universally appealing because of the silhouettes and despite the subject matter. Much like William Kentridge’s work who shares a fascination with theater and silhouette and racial relations though from the white Jewish South African male lens, the boldness of the silhouette draws all viewers in regardless of their race or political card. A silhouette is blank so that you the viewer may fill in the details, therefore when you are watching an animation or looking at a still image of a silhouette magically you can transport yourself into the image. If the image is full of detail (e.g. eye color, beard, wrinkle) you no longer have room for your imagination to play.

So as an artist, to utilize shadow is to appeal to all – an urge to appeal to the widest set of audience. Something important I think when dealing with matters of urgency such as violence or rape and general inhumanity. However there is a line between entertainment and jarring the senses for the sake of awareness and communication.

As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think that actually the work was about sex and not about the horrific racial relations of the ante bellum south. Is her work just an “expanded historical stage” per the essay accompanying the show, or simply a historical context to explore power and sex? I would think if her work is rooted in the politics of race, over the course of her practice the works would be evolving to include current if not other capsules in history where race has held court as the weapon of choice. Instead her work has remained in the South and on a plantation. Save her MET show and some text pieces she discussed at the lecture. Understandably this alone could be her life’s work, to continue to question that period and all of its unfathomable injustices.

The film I felt was excessive – the sex of puppets doesn’t really move me, just makes me sad. Her hands and voice ever present in the video, as well as her own silhouette featured as she moves the puppets to various “fighting or fucking” poses. I’m left feeling much like I did after watching the 2011 movie “Drive” – are we that numb that we need artists to pour sex and violence down our throats so we can feel inspired or charged? I’m not feeling it, though suspect it’s a motive of the artists.

Miss Walker reminds us the video is about, “forbidden love and devastating, inevitable loss.” I think it was about forbidden sex and horrific violence. All valid, but the love bit didn’t shine through…perhaps because of the 60’s porn music during the “love scenes”. But what would I know, I’ve not watched 60’s porn.

To sum up, I am pretty sure that all audience reactions are valid, because again the silhouette is for projecting, projecting your own issues onto the screen and scenario. Lastly I thank Kara Walker for her commitment to her practice – always an inspiration.


Still from “Fall from Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale”, Kara Walker. Image courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co

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  1. featsandfamines • October 3, 2012

    Thanks for calling it as you see it! Very insightful for anyone interested in Ms. Walker's work, as well as for Ms. Walker herself. Reply

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