The Coincidental Cousins

A night out with artist Kara Walker

Every night out has its bizarre themes, tiny lights of synchronicity that flash in conversations, a certain irrational logic. All the possibilities in New York City pile up to form a devilish consciousness.

A few nights ago, you leave the office with an immense coffee-table book about Chuck Close and another about the Wooster Group. You drop the books at home, forget about them, head to the Bowery to meet up with Kara.

You've seen a lot of your artist cousin Kara recently. Yes, that Kara—Kara Walker. The MacArthur genius whose cutout-silhouette installations of "sex pickaninnies," as you once called them, have generated accolades, anger, and sales. Her career is ablaze—again. Whitney retrospective (through February), New Yorker cover, New Yorker profile, Time's 100 Most Influential People. Her humility is hilarious, though. About illustrating the New Yorker cover, she says, "See, I can do something else, in case this gallery stuff doesn't work out." Only half-joking. You're like, "If this isn't 'working out,' what is?"

Your relationship in seven words: She amazes you, you make her laugh. It started in junior high. This year you spent a semi-vegetarian Thanksgiving at her place, and the following Sunday was her birthday party. Tonight your significant others are busy, so you hit the opening of the New Museum of Contemporary Art's new building, reminiscent of a stack of gray books, then go off to see Sister's Keeper, a thriller at the African Diaspora Film Festival.

You get to the museum before Kara. In the stark lobby, lit by flat-screen TVs, a boyish caterer holds out a tray of glasses filled with golden liquid. "What is this?" you ask, expecting to hear "Chardonnay" or "Sauvignon Blanc." "White wine," he replies. Is this racial profiling? You just say thanks.

Despite the cavernous spaces in the New Museum, it still feels cramped. The offices have low ceilings, the galleries no windows. A truly claustrophobia-inducing staircase squeaks down from the sixth floor. You make it to the seventh floor, lured by the promise of hors d'oeuvres. Up there, the DJ is hooked on AOR—songs in 6/8 time, wtf? The hors d'oeuvres disappear fast—seared salmon on a potato lattice with a hint of orange flavor. Kara, characteristically dressed down, emerges from the elevator with her pal Eungie Joo, director of education programs at the museum.

Soon, art historian Robert Hobbs—who has written about Kara and wants to write lots more—corners her. The one thing Kara isn't good at is ending conversations assertively. "I need you," Eungie says, almost angrily grabbing Kara's forearm. Eungie leads the two of you through the inaugural exhibition, "Unmonumental." Most of the works are large-scale sculptures made from cheap materials: a mountain of chairs, rags bound together. Eungie points out her favorite piece: four pieces of sandpaper balanced on a pair of two-by-fours. "My grad students at Columbia are making work like this," Kara says, "perhaps trying to avoid something, like content." She decides we'll come back later. At the coat check, she rips a fiver by accident. "What should I do about this?" she asks. "Tape it back together?" "It's the least we owe Marse Lincoln," you say.

Honey-voiced performer Kyle deCamp recently hepped you to the charms of the passé restaurant—quiet, empty places with good food and no wait—in particular the nearby Rialto, on Elizabeth Street. Tonight the front room is relatively full; only two tables open. "They're coming out with this huge Chuck Close book," Kara starts. The same one you brought home. "And Robert wants to put a similar one out for me, but I don't need another book right now." Earlier in the evening, you'd referred to Robert as her remora, the fish that attaches itself to a shark and feeds on its crumbs. Then again, you qualify too.

You talk a lot about astrology. All your intense, volatile relationships are with Cancers, hers with Tauruses. You order a thick pork chop with polenta; she has a stack of grilled veggies. "This dish only lacks one thing," she says. "Flavor."

A guy at the next table looks like Philip Roth. His friends all lean in to listen to him, which seems like proof. "That reminds me of a tryst I had with a downtown performer, in college, when I was working in that bookstore in Atlanta." Another Kara habit: blurting out things she might not want to see in print. A Sagittarius trait, supposedly. "Er, who? If I promise not to print it, will you tell me?" She tells you. It's another coincidence from your day. "I was investigating something about myself," she explains. "That must have made two of you," you respond. She describes her mother's sex-ed lesson: "Men don't like the feel of condoms. That's how we got you."

Outside it's crisp, and golden leaves skitter everywhere through the streets. The two of you dash to Anthology Film Archives, and you're soon watching a film with 20 other black people.

Kent Faulcon stars and directs this thriller, Sister's Keeper, a stylish yet low-budget movie about a hired killer who falls in love with the woman he's supposed to murder. Think Soul Food meets Shadowboxer—if you dare. The heroine mistakes the assassin for her estranged brother. Hints of incest, a rifle-toting grandma, a cameo by Eric Roberts. "Can I leave?" Kara whispers, maybe sickened by the female lead's perkiness. "Only if you tell me why," you say. She stays; the film gets more absorbing—even the actress—though it's literally murky. Black people in the dark have only been shot this haphazardly by the NYPD. "These are some silhouetted Negroes," you say to Kara. "Who was the cinematographer? You?"

During the film, Kara whispers, "I have never seen a black woman in a film that I wanted to meet in person— except Beloved," and writes on your scratch pad: "I am going to make a feature!" You thought of the shell-shocked fogies you watched leave the room at the Whitney where her short film 8 Possible Beginnings is still on view. They had just witnessed a scene of interracial gay sex and male pregnancy, followed by the difficult birth of a cotton-ball ghost-child. Nicole Kidman will not star in the upcoming feature version.

The screening ends at midnight, but Kara wants a nightcap. You wander through the Lower East Side, appalled by the fratty atmosphere of the East Village Yacht Club. A comparatively empty video bar, the Blue Seats, has about 30 flat-screen TVs embedded in its walls. You order a sidecar, she a mojito. You turn to the handsome, lost-looking white man next to you—whose last name turns out to be Whitman—and ask, "Wanna meet a famous artist?" He's polite but clearly has no clue who Kara is. Coincidentally, he's waiting for his cousin, who seems to have stood him up. Kara, born in Stockton, recognizes in him a specific Northern California privilege. "Don't you just want to fuck the entitlement out of him?" you ask. "That's the danger," she says. "My whole career started out as revenge on ex-boyfriends."

After the one drink, she considers going dancing. Most people with kids are in bed by now, if not asleep. But she's only considering. You put her in a northbound cab, and then have trouble finding one yourself.

The next morning, Eric Roberts appears in a saccharine AIDS film on TV, his lover soothing him into the next world by describing a scene on a ski lift. You watch him slowly die.

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