“We live,” Henry Louis Gates writes in his book Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, “in an age of irony—an age when passionate intensity is hard to find outside a freshman dining hall, and when even the mediocre lack all conviction.” No surprise then that, in New York this month, Richard Prince’s naughty nurse paintings and campy car sculptures transform the dysfunctional Guggenheim from old-fangled Frank Lloyd Wright ramp into the bedroom of a 57-year-old moppet.
Meanwhile, 15 blocks south of this Tropic of Teenerdom, the Whitney presents Kara Walker’s first American museum survey: “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.” A celebration of the muscular oeuvre—”a profound act of artistic exorcism,” to quote Gates again—of a fierce, elusive talent, Walker’s retrospective is an opportunity to bear witness to a uniquely nimble artistic performance: a high-wire act pulled off by a blackbird in a category-five hurricane.
Arrayed around 13 rooms, Walker’s drawings, paintings, light projections, writings, film animations, and signature black-paper silhouettes unflinchingly confront the largest (and angriest) shit-storm cruising America’s continental expanse: the riotous bugaboo of race. If there’s an artistic face-off here between the two museum shows, the tale of the tape pips Walker as the clear favorite. Let’s face it: Empty in-jokes don’t stand a chance when confronted with genuine power relations or Walker’s pitiless allegories of same.
Things with an artist like Prince are quite simple: As complex art goes, his is a twister in a Coke bottle. Walker’s work is Prince’s exact opposite. A perennially risky endeavor, her art of necessity does the unspeakable—namely, inject racialized conviction into caricature. Walker’s silhouettes—which she brilliantly binds to stereotypes by pointing out that both speak volumes while providing little information in themselves—stack up beautifully with the best of Goya, Honoré Daumier, and Otto Dix. A perpetual effort to speak truth to power, Walker’s merciless send-ups of belles and mammies, sambos and Southern gentleman, have—in the phrase Kenneth Tynan reserved for great criticism—goaded, lacerated, and raised whirlwinds in a way that few artists (excepting perhaps Robert Mapplethorpe) have managed in our time.
Walker emerged onto the art scene in 1994 seemingly fully formed with Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, a narrative panorama made of hand-clipped black paper that she affixed to the walls of Soho’s venerable Drawing Center. An astoundingly mature work for a 24-year-old, Gone conjugated an old-timey artistic practice (cut-paper portraits) with Sol LeWitt’s conceptual wall painting; Walt Disney’s revisionistSong of the South with abolitionist histories; the imagery of black minstrelsy with shitting, pissing figures locked in a daisy-chain of abjection that recalls Goya’s Los Disparates while evoking the proto-Harlequin romance of Gone with the Wind.
A perfect melding of subject and object, Walker’s silhouettes—which, as she points out, ultimately read clear as Rorschach tests—proved coal-black, diamantine receptacles with which to carry a welter of purposely conflicted values. A Trojan horse containing small devils of smiling malice, her gorgeously drawn comedies of miscegenation have, for more than a decade now, consistently pushed all the right buttons and a good many of the wrong ones, too.
Gone, like other works included in the Whitney exhibition—the shadow projection Darkytown Rebellion, for example, or an earlier paper-on-canvas work provocatively titled Before the Battle (Chickin’ Dumplin’)—present X-rated satires in a delicately decorative guise. Images that defy white passivity, Walker’s lecherous planters and pregnant pickaninnies reshuffle old dualities, by turns shaming and mocking standard responses, while inverting the verities of liberal guilt as much as those of black uplift.
It could have been Before the Battle, in fact, that impelled the artists Betye Saar and Howardena Pindell to lead an older generation of African-American intellectuals to first protest, then actively boycott Walker’s art in 1997. A deceptively simple silhouette of a “negress”—Walker has appropriated this term for herself, exactly as Richard Pryor did “nigger” for his comedy routines in the 1970s—and a Confederate rebel in a tit-sucking, drumstick-dropping embrace, Before the Battle is at once a historical outrage and a hilarious, nerve-tweaking representation of racial codependency. Not surprisingly, the joke was lost on the folks that the novelist Albert Murray calls “the bullies of blackness.” Still, for others, Walker’s astoundingly economic paper pastiches spark the transgressive frisson of samizdat under Stalinism.
“I wanted to make work where the viewer wouldn’t walk away,” Walker has said about her shadowy representations of America’s dark conscience, where “he would giggle nervously, get pulled into history, into fiction, into something totally demeaning and possibly very beautiful.” That she has done, and in spades. Few exhibitions are as important as Walker’s array of formal elegance and cruel imagery currently at the Whitney. An achievement on the scale of the great art dramas (think Guernica or the cultural reach of Mexican muralism), Walker’s capacious art addresses everyone—young and old, black and white, guilty-feeling and not— as ultimately sinning and sinned against.