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LONDON — Until recently, my experience of Kara Walker’s art was in bits and pieces, and based exclusively on her cutout silhouettes. I’d missed both her 2007–08 survey and the broad-spectrum installation at Camden Arts Centre in 2014, and “A Subtlety” (2014) in New York was yet another pilgrimage that didn’t happen. So her first one-person exhibition with gallerist Victoria Miro seemed like my best chance to obtain anything more than a superficial exposure to Walker’s oeuvre.
It turned out to be much more. Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First is the most exhilarating exhibition of contemporary art that I’ve seen in at least a couple of years — nothing less than a gorgeous, powerful, nuanced visual rant. In short, a revelation.
I say this as a white, American, middle-class woman who’s more than 60 years old. When I say “revelation,” I’m not talking about a race- and class-based bubble being burst, but about seeing Walker’s artistry as a no-holds-barred marvel. Arrayed over two floors of Miro’s beautiful Islington space, the exhibition includes the following: one of Walker’s immense silhouette murals; four very large works on paper that combine painting, drawing, and cut-out; and 30 or so very small drawings in watercolor and/or pencil. Last but hardly least, it also features one massive black-and-white photographic mural produced in collaboration with filmmaker/photographer Ari Marcopoulos — a documentary image of Stone Mountain.
A bit of background about that mountain, which is located near Atlanta, where Walker lived as a teen: Stone Mountain has long served as a monument to the Southern Confederacy. It’s the world’s largest exposed granite monolith, and it’s the place where the Ku Klux Klan was reborn in 1915 after suppression by the federal government in the late 19th century. In 1916, the site was deeded to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who commissioned Gutzon Borglum to carve an immense bas relief on its face portraying Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on their respective horses. Borglum abandoned the project in 1925 to work on Mount Rushmore. After the assignment was passed along to a handful of other artists, it was finally completed in 1972, with Roy Faulkner the last artist to work on it.
The upper floor of the gallery is more or less devoted to works that explore aspects of the Stone Mountain memorial and Confederate culture. At the opposite end of the room from the photograph is Walker’s “40 Acres of Mules” (2015), a large tripartite drawing that analyzes and critiques the mountain’s bas relief image — often in ways that would seem blasphemous to those who revere Confederate history (which I, a Yankee, do not). Yet it wasn’t the content of the picture that struck me as much as its bravura drawing.
Actually — and drifting downstairs to the ground-floor installation — the drawings in the exhibition were, to me, its most exciting elements. Not her deliberately demotic rendering, although much of that work was very effective, but the sophisticated drafting that betrayed Walker’s academic skills. I know that admiring traditional technical skill is philistine, but I enjoyed her demonstrations of such mastery (an ironic choice of words, I suppose, but there it is).
There are several examples I could point to here, but the one that stands out most for me is Walker’s rendering of a male figure wearing a prototypical hoodie and baggy jeans. Drawn with pencil on grid paper, the man is shown from the back, from the knees up. He’s about to throw something that looks like it’s burning—possibly some kind of Molotov cocktail. He holds it in his left hand, while his right arm is extended to give him balance. His right foot is planted on the ground, his knees are bent, and his left foot is raised. His body curves to the left as he gets ready to throw.
This movement is echoed in the fluidity and varying weight of line used to describe it. All the elements work together to convey a real sense of body language here, such that we get the sense of an individual’s imminent act of violent rebellion. For me, this beautiful drawing mirrored the way that American culture’s white, patriarchal society has given violence a black male body or incarnation.
Walker’s Four Idioms on Negro Art #4: Primitivism (2015) is another work that struck me. This is one of four paintings presenting four different stereotypes of work by black artists, which also includes folk art and graffiti. Walker sets these imposed perceptions against what she identifies as four artistic goals or desires: conceptual art practice, fine art, technical mastery, and mind-boggling scale. I don’t fully understand how she has identified these desires — I don’t really know what is meant by “fine art,” for example, in relation to the others — but the stereotypes seem right on target. Art history is replete with instances of black artists whose conceptual sophistication and technical skill are unquestionable, from Juan de Pereja to Edmonia Lewis to Steve McQueen, yet the stereotypes persist.
Primitivism is a very large and vivid mixed-media work that incorporates four silhouetted figures placed between two stunted, sinewy trees. From left to right, they are a woman and man of African descent, a skeletal figure of death, and a helmeted figure who most likely is a motorcycle cop. The man in the center sucks on the woman’s breast while death tears the flesh off his leg. With her profile enhanced by drawing and cut-out that exposes white paper, it’s clear that the woman is joyously aroused. The white of her eye is a bright triangle, and her drawn, flared nostril made me think of “nose wide open,” a slang phrase meaning “extreme arousal” that I haven’t heard since high school. Meanwhile, the helmeted figure has his legs spread wide and a silhouetted phallus — either the real thing or a visual metaphor — pokes out from between them. Although I wasn’t entirely clear on how, stylistically, this picture related to primitivism, it surely illustrates the stereotype of primal, even mindless sexuality that has been associated with persons of African descent.
Viewing this and Walker’s other pictures in England highlighted the extent to which her images, and the racism they illuminate, are steeped in America’s unique history — which, in turn, is based on the particular institution of slavery. Certainly the UK has its own extensive history of culture-based depredations, and remains a society stressed by several factors, including race. At one point, its economy relied heavily on the triangular trade of British metal goods to Africa, African slaves to West Indies sugar plantations, and sugar back to Blighty. But Britain outlawed slavery in 1833, and persons of African descent weren’t a significant presence in English society until after the second World War.
In other words, within the London gallery context, I could see the American-ness of Walker’s work. I also realized the extent to which her pictures triggered memories of my own experiences in racially divided America. Understanding my culture-specific reception, in turn, gave me space to consider Walker’s artistry and the ways in which her formal prowess so powerfully communicated and was part of the content of the work. So, yes, it was a revelation.
Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First will continue at Victoria Miro Gallery (16 Wharf Road, London) through November 7.
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