It’s often easy to think of art museums as places to escape from real life, but public institutions must remain attentive and in service to their immediate communities. An ongoing controversy over the display of works by Kelley Walker at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis (CAMSTL) drives home this responsibility. Direct Drive, the Georgia-born artist’s first solo exhibition at a US museum, features photographs of black men and women smeared with chocolate and toothpaste that have triggered a public boycott of the museum. The protestors, many of whom are members of St. Louis’s black community, are demanding a proper apology from administrators and that the art be taken down. In a city where people are still grappling with the shooting of Michael Brown and the ensuing Ferguson riots, the situation raises the question of what it means for a museum to hang images of black bodies that its visitors consider violent and painful.
Direct Drive opened on September 16 as a survey of Walker’s work to date. Pieces occupy the entirety of the museum, including new, site-specific works that do not relate to race. Images from Walker’s Black Star Press and schema series, however, quickly became the subjects of heated discussion during an artist talk on September 17. The former series consists of photographs from the 1963 Birmingham movement printed on canvases that Walker covered with melted white, milk, and dark chocolate; the latter series appropriates covers of KING magazine that feature provocative pictures of black women — enlarged and streaked with pastel-colored toothpaste.
“Kelley goes all over the world to exhibit, but this city is a different city,” artist Damon Davis, who called for the boycott, told Hyperallergic. “We’ve gone through different things recently. For the institution to bring something like that here, now — when there are activists dying, when they’re being locked in prison, when we wake up and there’s another black man dead on camera for the world to see — is blatantly irresponsible and offensive. When we see images up on walls that look exactly like what we really live through in real life, it very much shows that this institution and curator are way far out of touch.”
At the artist talk on September 17, visitors attempted to better understand the imagery but left believing that neither Walker nor curator Jeffrey Uslip could satisfactorily explain what they meant. According to artists in attendance, including Davis, Walker dismissed inquiries about whom he considers his audience and why he is fixed on images of the black body and of racial injustice.
“[Walker] was able to talk about the technical aspects of the work,” artist Kahlil Irving told Hyperallergic. “Unfortunately, he dropped everything when it came to why he made them and what the work means. There was a failure to share even where his work actually comes from and where he wants to go. … I attend programming at CAMSTL because I believe in their vision. Now it is extremely questionable, especially working with an artist who cannot speak about his work and answer poignant questions about it.”
Artist Kat Reynolds was among many in attendance who took offense at how Walker addressed the audience, characterizing his manner as rude and defensive.
“[The talk] was a microcosm of what we are dealing with on a daily basis,” Reynolds told Hyperallergic. “From the tension of the room, to the complete disregard for the feelings of the community, to a white man basically saying once again, ‘I made this, so now you have to deal with it,’ without explanation. That triggering feeling goes so deep that it is begging to consume us.”
In a Facebook post, Davis called for a boycott of the museum until administrators remove the work and issue a formal apology to the black community. Black administrative staff and their allies at the museum have also sent a private statement and a list of demands to CAMSTL’s board of directors. The exhibition, slated to end on December 31, currently remains in its original state; museum director Lisa Melandri said she expects to make an institutional decision on how to move forward with all involved voices considered.
“The show is up now because this is something that we are processing, discussing, and thinking through,” Melandri told Hyperallergic. “What I would say is that I am, right now, as the leader of this organization, listening. … Part of my decision-making process is to think through with staff, the board, and the community leaders who have asked for it to come down if that it is an option for us; and what the repercussions are of keeping the show up and of taking the show down; and to not make a move on that right now but to engage in a thoughtful and sensitive discussion with the leaders, the staff, and the stakeholders of the organization.”
Melandri added that the Q&A session on September 17 was “a failure on the part of the artist, and therefore, on the institution, to properly answer and respect the questions from the audience.
“I, institutionally, and Jeffrey Uslip, as curator, apologize for shutting down the conversation,” she said. “We pride ourselves on being a place where people can come and ask questions, and they should have their questions answered.”
Hyperallergic reached out to Kelley through his New York gallery, Paula Cooper, for commentary on his contentious series, the exhibition’s timing and location, and the public reaction to it. Gallery representatives instead sent the introduction to an essay about the Black Star Press series from Direct Drive‘s catalogue, written by the New Yorker’s Hilton Als. (In it, Als praises the images but does not address their display in St. Louis.) Melandri said she personally finds that Walker’s use and transformation of public domain images make his work “resonant and complicated.
“I feel that a lot of this work [in the exhibition] — while formally very beautiful and very layered — is an indictment of what is wrong with American society, historically and today,” she said. “The Black Star Press images are part of that. Specifically, where he has taken images of race riots and hidden and revealed different parts of those original images that make us think more about the complex power relationship between the oppressive police presence, which is white, and the protester who is a victim, who is black. He brings this back into your view but also highlights for you the heads of those protagonists and that human relationship in a critical way.”
The museum has been planning the exhibition for three years; Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in August 2014. According to museum educator and artist Lyndon Barrois, numerous staff members were skeptical towards certain works in Direct Drive and had raised questions about the exhibition prior to its opening. He personally had questions about issues of authorship, whether Walker is trivializing his subjects’s experiences or undermining their power, and whether he is being constructive or destructive in how he incorporates his imagery.
“While we were provided with explanations, related essays, etc., we never had the opportunity to speak openly as a staff about the work itself, or the implications of exhibiting it in St. Louis,” Barrois said, adding that he still stands behind Melandri as a leader despite these oversights. Melandri told Hyperallergic that internal conversations did occur about whether some images could be offensive particularly when shown in St. Louis, which is why the museum did plan, from the beginning, to address such concerns in public forums.
“We knew that this art, and the art that we show at the museum in St. Louis is often not easy and is often a place where some laud it and some find it difficult and/or offensive,” she said. “We now understand the level to which that pain and offense has been caused by these images and now we must make decisions about whether or not people should continue to be confronted by these images.” The events in Ferguson, she added, have continually, directly impacted how the museum has considered its programming, season after season.
One event the institution had planned months in advance is scheduled for tonight: the panel discussion, “Critical Conversations: Art and the Black Body,” will address topics from how black bodies are used in contemporary art to what people feel about who has the right to depict certain human subjects. Walker’s work will serve as a jumping off point and and also provide context for the dialogue. Those boycotting the museum, however, will not be satisfied with just talk.
“I’m tired of doing panels, discussions, and talks with white people who don’t care about us so they can have the whole world see us go through pain and get more people into the museum,” Davis told Hyperallergic. “I won’t be doing any panels. What tangible, real steps, will they do to right this?”
For Irving, any words must be met with action that changes the museum’s approach to curation, installation, and public presentation now and in the future.
“If they support this work, they support white supremacy and white men being able to do whatever they want without question,” he said. “Let’s use common sense and address the systematic and male dominant perspective. Let’s make a change in how art has been being shown and keep making strides to change for the better. They need to recognize that from a position of power they can watch and look at the work from a distance — but how does the public they serve view the work? Art is life, and life is art, it is all not inseparable. The people coming to view it need to be a part of decision-making, not just shock value or market value.”
Update 9/22, 5:15pm: Museum staffers De Andrea Nichols, Lyndon Barrois Jr., and Victoria Donaldson have shared the three-page letter they wrote, signed, and delivered to the museum on behalf of black administrative staff and their allied colleagues. In it, they say Walker’s work “triggers a retraumatization of racial and regional pain” and that “works within the Black Star Press inflict additional insult and injury to the injustices of our time. To provide a white, male artist the entirety of the museum and include works of this nature positions the museum and its staff in implicit support and perpetuation of these societal ills.”
The letter also lists community demands, including formal apologies from Uslip and the museum; Uslip’s resignation; the removal of works in Direct Drive deemed offensive; permission from Walker and Paula Cooper gallery to publicly post video footage of the September 18 artist talk; and a reassessment of CAMSTL’s curatorial policies.
Read their full letter here.
Update 9/22, 5:30pm: Kelley Walker has released a statement addressed to the CAMSTL community, shared with Hyperallergic by his gallery.
“The concerns [about the artist talk] were legitimate, so I regret that I did not answer them adequately at the time,” he writes. “Although the works date from the early 2000s. … I should have been much clearer and more articulate about them. Given the painful recent history of the city, as well as the much longer history of violence and injustice directed at its African-American community, I should have been better prepared to address the subject matter.”
Read Walker’s full letter here.
Update 9/23, 10:55am: Kelley Walker’s gallery, Paula Cooper, released a statement responding to the reaction to the artist’s work at CAMSTL.
“The anger of the black community and its challenge to systemic forms of racism, in St. Louis and elsewhere in the US, is real,” it reads in part. “Questions of race and representation are sensitive and urgent, particularly when seen within the context of decades of violence and disenfranchisement, punctuated by a seemingly endless string of tragedies. We believe, however, that it is positive for this difficult conversation to occur, as we firmly believe in art’s power to ask crucial questions about our times, and in its potential to elicit a multiplicity of responses and points of view.”
Read Paula Cooper gallery’s full statement here.
Update 9/26, 1:30pm: CAMSTL sent a statement to Hyperallergic saying that after lengthy dialogue and deliberations, it will keep the exhibition on view, as taking it down “would violate the Museum’s core principles and end the productive dialogue this work has initiated.
“The show will remain on view in its entirety, but with modifications designed to welcome dialogue and dissent,” the statement reads, noting that Direct Drive is a show that warrants a unique response. “Additionally, the museum will explore further ways to engage the community in an ongoing and constructive dialogue on the issues the exhibition has raised. Finally, CAM will ensure that the exhibit is properly identified as potentially painful, so that visitors who wish to avoid particularly difficult works may do so.”
Update 9/29, 4:35pm: Curator Jeffrey Uslip released a statement addressed to the St. Louis Community apologizing for how the artist talk unfolded. Uslip writes that “questions were raised fairly and honestly. Following the talk, I recognize that, in trying to moderate the question-and-answer session, I unintentionally ended the conversation too soon, and for this I sincerely apologize. I believe the conversation that started during the artist talk needs to continue, and I am committed to seeing that it does.
“In recognition and acknowledgement that some of the works in the exhibition are painful to the community, we have modified the experience of viewing the exhibition, in concert with the artist. Works that have generated anger and caused pain are now in a space where viewers have the choice whether or not to