Art

With ‘Afterword,’ Kara Walker Slaps a Coda on Her Domino Sugar Sphinx

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How is it that a burly dude miming a double butt-cheek squeeze is the most memorable image to come out of Kara Walker’s latest gallery show, “Afterword”?

Sure, he’s just some doofus messing around with the curved rear of Walker’s mammy-sphinx — the 30-some-foot-tall one formed from polystyrene foam coated with white sugar that was on view in Williamsburg’s former Domino Sugar factory this past summer. And he’s just doing what a certain kind of guy (or girl) might do when a friend aims a smartphone at you while you’re standing in front of a pair of Mount
Rushmore–size buttocks.

Though he may be funny, he’s also cringeworthy, and an image that’s hard to shake. As such, he’s emblematic of this Truth and Reconciliation Commission of a show that sets out to metabolize Walker’s Domino spectacle. Contrary to the statue’s official title, A Subtlety it was most certainly not: The 130,000 who paid their respects included the likes of Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and the infanta Blue Ivy; the show’s social-media presence — encouraged by on-site signage suggesting the hashtag #karawalkerdomino — was much commented upon, with some complaining about precisely the kind of ass-grabbing our man committed for the camera.

We meet our hero during An Audience, the 27-minute film that captures the final hours of A Subtlety and screens in the back room of Sikkema Jenkins. To watch it is to bear witness to the usual tourist behavior: people milling about, kids fidgeting, folks chitchatting. But as the camera makes its way to the sphinx’s backside, we discover the myriad suggestive gestures made by both women and men in response to her swollen vulva and gargantuan heinie.

An Audience (as well as some of the sketches and watercolors on view in “Afterword”) suggests that Walker — not an artist known for her laugh track — is chuckling along with the throng. A particularly acerbic watercolor depicts one of the sphinx’s boy
attendants aiming his smartphone at a visitor. At the same time, the film suggests that A Subtlety might have been one big fat sideshow, or some kind of social experiment cloaked in high art, as much as it was a commentary on this nation’s history of racism and exploitation: Tempt the masses with something lurid and see what they’ll do.

The rest of the exhibition feels somehow ancillary to the questions the film raises, despite the many gorgeous images on view. Three boy attendants — young, per their round cheeks and bellies, but almost as tall as you and me — rescued from the Domino tableau remain figures of pathos today. Also on view: the sphinx’s amputated left front foot, a massive sugar-coated heap that usefully reminds us of the original’s scale but feels inert as a stand-alone.

Rich watercolors and gouaches riffing on images of the sugar-fueled slave trade ring a main room. Of these, Walker’s ambitious homage to J.M.W. Turner’s abolitionist manifesto in impasto, The Slave Ship, is the most remarkable. An 1840 picture revisiting a late-18th-century tale of a slaver who threw his human cargo overboard in order to collect insurance payments, The Slave Ship caused a stir in its day. Here Walker renders the heartbreaking tale in sunset shades of gouache splashed across nearly 14 feet of paper, handling the pigment with ease and confidence. (And just as things were getting serious, we notice its decidedly mordant title: Terrible Vacation, inscribed in the roiling sea.)

Stunning as it is, the homage to Turner can’t depose the visions of butt-grabs dancing in our heads, our man’s arms upraised in a triumph of the lowest common denominator.

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