With all due respect to the legions who argue otherwise, it is totally bogus to claim that art is about beauty or that the two are even connected. Goya’s stupendous
Saturn Devouring His Children isn’t beautiful, nor is Duchamp’s bottle rack, or Thomas Hirschhorn’s recent blood-and-modernism installation. Over time these works may alter definitions of beauty, but it’s an oversimplification to say that art and beauty are innately bound. It’s as empty, dogmatic, patronizing, misleading, and limiting as saying art is about sincerity, wonderment, or any other absolute value.
Keats was wrong: Beauty isn’t truth, or truth beauty. Saying art is about beauty is like saying “I’m for children.” Everyone loves beauty; Nazis loved beauty; Osama loves beauty. As painter Allison Taylor recently wrote, “Reducing art to beauty hides vacant thoughts; it can be used as propaganda, to decorate mini-mansions, and crowd out art that is harder to deal with.” Maybe the people clamoring for beauty are just playing yin to the yang of all those blinkered academics who automatically disdain anything beautiful.
Kara Walker’s work is sometimes great. It is rarely beautiful. Although her art can be uneven, scant, or stunted, Walker is the closest the United States has yet come to producing a sensibility like Goya’s. She is not, of course, the equal of this Spanish master, but she does delve into the night of history, the mystery of suffering, and the dominion of pain with similar self-effacement, cunning, and an assassin’s eye for detail. In Walker’s work sex is both a reality and a metaphor for the profound violation that slavery and its long aftermath represent and the distorting accommodations they have fostered. More than any artist I can think of, Walker explores the sexual nature of all power, of dominance and submission. She’s also got a wicked sense of humor.
Walker takes Goya’s love and repugnance for humanity and his feel for the hallucinatory and combines it with the obsessive splendor and towering ferocity—what Georges Bataille called “the fury incarnate”—of the Marquis de Sade. Instead of the three-inch-long clitorises in Sade’s Juliette, or what Camille Paglia called the “Busby Berkeley–like spectacle of 100 nuns linked by dildos” and the multiple father-daughter-son incest-rape-murders of 120 Days of Sodom, Walker—in her scintillating new animated 16-minute video 8 Possible Beginnings, as well as in a handful of new works on paper—exults in a hermaphroditic world where she imagines herself dressed as a plantation slave having sex with a dead Union soldier. She envisions a white sea captain who throws “uppity black Negroes” overboard, a black giantess swallowing them up and excreting one burly black figure who fellates and copulates with a white man who gets pregnant, crying “Massa knock me up,” has a child delivered from his anus by a mammy-midwife who immediately throws the baby into a cotton field where it grows into a figure who walks past “Dead Nigger Gulch” as the voices of Walker and a young girl (her daughter, it turns out) murmur sadomasochistic chants of, among other things, “I wish I were white.”
Writing about racism, Frantz Fanon discussed being “battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave ships, and above all: ‘Sho’ good eatin.’ ” This is the omega point Walker takes us to in 8 Possible Beginnings, a place where the cruelty of racism, the bottomless confusion of the divided self, and the crushing weight of being defined from without is probed. Horror, cliché, eroticism, and exoticism meld in Uncle Remus–meets-Rabelaisian orgies. 8 Possible Beginnings is like a hashish trance: murky, alien, satanic, spacey, and seductive; ambiguity reigns, you want to get away but are drawn in. In 8 Possible Beginnings Walker provides a terrifying glimpse into what Miles Davis meant when he said, “If white people really knew what was on most black people’s minds, it would scare them to death.”
In Walker’s art we’re often trapped in the 75 years of American hell between 1788, the year slavery was made legal by the U.S. Constitution, and 1863, the year Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Walker pulls back the curtains on that bilious fountainhead from which flows the great irreparable crime of American slavery. James Baldwin said that “no true account of Black life can be contained in the English language.” Walker’s work is a language made up of tatters of words, shadow plays, puppets, Civil War etchings, newspaper clippings, drawings, animation, collage, and magic lantern shows. The most memorable and potent of all her artistic weapons, however, her formal equivalent of Pollock’s drip, is the cutout paper silhouette. This salvaged “minor” medium, free from the weight of art history, has traditionally been used for portraits, caricatures, and decorative knickknacks. Walker once disarmingly described it as “something practiced by women, children, and Negroes.” Silhouette fits Walker’s wicked vision to a tee: It reduces everything to black and white, it objectifies as it obscures.
Of course, the silhouette form is so elementary that it often gets visually boring. Throughout her career Walker has struggled mightily for ways to augment her basic process, continually experimenting, failing, then trying again. This willingness to fail flamboyantly makes her one of my favorite artists. This show is more bittersweet, nuanced, and personal than usual, and as baleful, barbed, and bloodthirsty. Walker has now transformed damage into deepness, which is beginning to make her work truly dangerous.