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.”
Kelley Walker: Direct Drive is now on view! #openingnight #kelleywalker #InstaCAM
A photo posted by CAM (@camstl) on
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.
IDK Trina seems like an innocent name until you see this. #kelleywalker #camstl #hiphopculture
A photo posted by Dawn Crawford (@dawnacrawford) on
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
Read the full statement here. Uslip will be leading a follow-up discussion at the museum on October 7.
Art Problems: How Do I Get a Public Art Commission?
Want to leave a mark on your city or town, but don’t know where to start? Paddy Johnson has some tips.
Rose B. Simpson Embeds Ancestral Histories in Clay
She has taken clay and used it to recall its ancestral roots in Pueblo culture and address the present history of postcolonial recovery and ongoing trauma.
Mondays at Pratt Institute: Weekly Openings of Work by Graduating Artists
Free and open to the public, Pratt Shows celebrate the school’s graduating students. MFA and BFA work on view this spring in Brooklyn, New York.
Quiet Paintings at a Time of Sensory Overload
Where Kim Mikyung’s process suggests an obsessive burrowing into the self, Kim Hyung-dae casts his gaze upward and outward into the sky.
Is the “Free the Nipple” Movement Too White?
Online representations of the activists lean White and thin, creating an image problem for the movement.
LSU School of Art Grants Highest MFA Stipends in the Southern US
With funded assistantships, full tuition waivers, and generous stipends, Louisiana State University helps students lay the groundwork for a successful lifelong art practice.
New “We ❤️ NYC” Campaign Misses the Mark
The recently unveiled design is meant to live alongside the iconic original and specifically address the city, but New Yorkers are not happy.
1,000+ Objects at The Met Linked to Antiquities Smugglers
A report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed hundreds of works once owned by people accused of or convicted of antiquities crimes.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago Offers Summer Art and Design Courses Online and On-Campus
Emerging and established artists can choose from over 50 Adult Continuing Education courses at one of the most influential art and design schools in the US.
Lunar Bead Necklace and Asteroid “Emoji” Head to Auction
Christie’s bizarre sale features other space rocks propped up on stands like sculptures.
Scientists Create the First Full Brain Map of a Fly
The achievement is a giant step toward understanding human neural networks.
IDSVA Offers a Non-Studio PhD in Visual Arts: Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Art Theory
With no campus, the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts is a truly nomadic institution, existing everywhere our students and faculty are.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Closes Over Climate Protest
The institution shuttered in advance of an action planned for the 33rd anniversary of its infamous art heist.
Remembering the Migrants Who Died in US Detention
Artist Jackie Amézquita will lead a caravan of trucks with the names of the deceased to LA sites representing systems of oppression and solidarity for immigrants.
There is an important error in this article.
The Critical Mass for the Arts of St. Louis “Critical Conversation” was NOT constructed as an institutional response to this exhibition. A CAM staff member (not the director or the curator who invited Walker) asked if CAM could host this 6th panel discussion in an on-going series.
The director and curator did NOT tell the Critical Mass committee that this was supposed to be their response to this exhibition. And it IS NOT. Tonight’s all black panel is NOT responsible for or answering for this artist, this art or this institution’s decisions. Critical Mass for the Arts has CAM admin’s word that the panel discussion tonight will be a discussion that centers black critical voices. It is NOT a substitute for the institution’s response to Damon Davis’s call to boycott.
This Critical Conversation is taking place because some black artists in St. Louis wish to speak directly to their experience of the artist’s talk here last Saturday and to talk about the long history between our local black community and St. Louis cultural institutions.
This is the statement within the article that requires a correction:
“One event the institution had planned months in advance is scheduled for tonight: the panel discussion, ‘Critical Conversations: Art and the Black Body,'”
Hi Sarah, thank you for the feedback. I didn’t state that the panel was constructed as the museum’s response to the exhibition, but that it had been planned months prior to the boycott. I know that speakers are not responsible for answering for the artist/museum and apologize if my description of the event (paraphrased from what the director told me over the phone) came across that way.
Again, this is not an institution planned event. The director was not part of its planning. Nor was the curator who brought in Walker.
The fact this this is a Critical Mass for the Arts St. Louis event may seem like a small detail to those uninvolved. But we, who in good faith helped organize this event, do not wish to be used or to allow our panelists to be used as a cover for the seeming lack of preparation by CAM in regards to legitimate pushback at this exhibition.
Hi Claire. I’m the chair of the Critical Conversations committee, which is a part of Critical Mass for the Visual Arts. Please see our statement (which we will be reading at tonight’s event) below:
Critical Conversations is a program by Critical Mass for the Visual Arts that strives to sustain important dialogues on art in St. Louis. When we began organizing this event (the sixth in an ongoing series) way back in June, we made this a partnership with the Contemporary Art Museum. Our committee planned then to form a panel discussion on Art and the Black Body in a much broader context than just Kelley Walker’s artwork. We did not intend –and do not now intend to— answer for Kelley Walker or CAM for hosting the exhibit.
Throughout the past several days, we at Critical Mass have been listening to our community and we see that some people wish to speak directly to their experience of the artist’s talk here last Saturday, and to talk about the long history between our local black community and St. Louis cultural institutions. To that end, we are going to follow this Critical Conversation with at least one future event. We will hold that planned broader conversation about Art and the Black Body at a later date and in a different location.
For this event, we want to provide an opportunity to center black critical voices around what people feel, think and want – – right here, right now.
We acknowledge that many people are making their voices heard by NOT attending. We respect and appreciate that action and do not wish for this event to diminish those community members’ voices.
For those who may wish further context –
Incomprehensible, unlikable, pretentious, offensive – adjectives I often use to describe contemporary art. Why do I continue to go to museums? Because every now and then there is a piece which fills me with delight or wonder. More often I wonder “What the f___ was the artist thinking?” The Kelley exhibit definitely fits the worse adjectives. The situation was exacerbated by the artist’s inability to offer any explanation for his use/abuse of the subject matter and insensitivity to the sociopolitical climate; therefore, making it seem all the more pretentious and exploitative. People have every right to be pissed! So should we take it down and burn it? Many of you say “yes.” Does this not raise any serious red flags, people? Remember Nazi Germany book burnings? Anyone remember the PMRC and Tipper Gore? Hip hop as we know it would not exist had they succeeded in their mission. Are we ready to create a climate where artists self censor based on fear of negative response? (Example: how many political cartoonists will be willing to critique any aspect of Muslim religion after Charlie Hebdo?) Are we ready to toss our First Amendment Rights and freedom of expression out the window so we can feel comfortable and safe all the time? I’m really surprised how many people I consider to be intelligent free thinkers and artists are ready to jump on the censorship wagon. I’m all for calling the artist out on his BS and voicing discontent and boycotting the exhibit. But taking the work down sets us on a slippery slope where artists will only create work that fills us with delight and wonder rather than provoking, disturbing and offending. That would be a tragic loss, given the fact that the unpleasant pieces are the ones that cause us to question, discuss, grow and learn and, if all goes well, heal our community.
Ok… list of things to eradicate, effective immediately:
curators who are not conversant with adobe photoshop.
Dear Just Fed Up,
You are so right. Adult life in this world will never be annoyance/offense free. Take what you like, and leave the rest.
I’ll settle with the good in life, but dang it I’ll also be there to defend it.
I think people are free to express what they think of this individual’s insensitive art and educate him as to their feelings about it.
Now this is interesting, maybe I’ve been too hard on Hyperallergenic. Of course, the story has its shortcomings. Exactly what is the problem with Walker’s images? That he puts chocolate on an upside-down photo of a Civil Rights demonstrator being assaulted by the police? That he puts toothpaste on the cover of a pinup magazine of black women? You’d think a sensible person of color would find these things ridiculous, rather than demonizing them as racist (or whatever).It’s not particularly in the Civil Rights tradition to censor speech you find objectionable. And anyway, no one, either for or against, seems able to decipher just what these signs mean. Walker is being avant-garde gnomic, and probably doesnt even know himself. Hilton Als is a graceful writer but way over-rated; is there no explanation in his essay? Let’s see, shall we give it a try? Let’s start with toothpaste, which makes teeth white, and chocolate, which is a sweet metaphor for people of color. Thought of that way, what do we have — images of black history and culture mixed with a confectionary of delicious and healthy appetites? Might it be like poetry?
To me, Kelly Walker’s late apology for his inability to answer questions about his work is pretty telling. With glaring clarity, it points to the fact that he’s (been) completely oblivious to the role he, as a white male artist, inhabits in this discourse. It’s neither here nor there whether the images are a decade old: he’s so removed from the killing of Michael Brown and others that he doesn’t even entertain the idea that he should come prepared to his own artist talk. This is astonishing!
Had he had a more informed, personal and/or emotional, understanding of the endlessly ongoing demeaning of black bodies and lives in this country, his talk could have lead to an important dialogue and exchange. It’s this missed opportunity that makes both Walker and his work appear shallow and uneducated.
The letter by museum staffers De Andrea Nichols, Lyndon Barrois Jr., and Victoria Donaldson is the best thing in this show. Bravo to them for standing up and making strong and righteous demands to CAMSTL.
the letter should be exhibited and shown in full in this article; not as a link. its pretty powerful
it’s telling that the artist wants the exhibition to generate conversation but is nonplussed about protesters wanting to remove the art itself
Probably the most ridiculous reason to protest that I’ve ever heard. Sounds like the protestors need something to occupy their time like making their OWN ART or getting a damn job! RIDICULOUS !
the hell you think these people don’t have jobs for? how about you make some art or some jobs about the protestors then? i don’t know maybe they are spending their time in discourse about the art.
This exposes something everybody knows but usually can’t prove – that the art world often gets credit for thought, depth and meaning that isn’t really there. Sometimes it’s true to say we “don’t get it ” because there’s nothing to get. Sometimes the only value is cheap shock.
If this art meant anything beyond that the artist had a responsibility to say so. Even his letter is exceedingly vague and does nothing to refute the idea that more than anything, his work just continues the cycle of degrading the black image.
I’m also curious what percentage of the museum’s depiction of people of color this white artists defaced images represent. I’m guessing between 40 and 60%
Regardless of the perceived insensitivity of the artist and/or his work, censoring art is NOT the answer. But the controversy and ensuing discussion this particular work has generated has tremendous value.
I’d lose some respect for the museum if they decided to bend to the demands of those who view art differently.
Art is art, there are subjects that inspire, and some that make us think. There have been some that were downright offensive! Taking sides upon how they feel about the art is one thing: it is downright insane to demand apologies and removal of artwork, based upon unfounded racial uproar.
I don’t need lecturing on here, so move on. I read the story, but do not feel the same way the protesting group feels. Hatred exists in all forms, to all people.
Why do you think museums are neutral? They never are. They already took a side by presenting this. The notion that museums are neutral are a fiction about something that has never existed. Traditional museums were often part of the colonial project (most are filled with the spoila of conquest) and the enforcement of white supremacist ideas (focusing on European and white art). Contemporary art spaces are just as guilty of being of their time and representing the values of the elites and not other people.
Yes, let’s take the art down because it offends us. People should lose their jobs over this. And let’s make sure no banned books are in the libraries. Let’s boycott every work by anyone who has done anything wrong in their lives. I don’t think that the cycle of oppression–>victimization–>oppression of oppressors by victims is working. Do you think that cleaning up every piece of creative expression that is remotely offensive will make the world a fairer, less prejudiced place? The purpose of art is to make us THINK. Take away anything that doesn’t agree with your worldview and what do you have left? No discussions, no expanding of one’s horizons, no learning. What we end up with is a world where everyone should be afraid of doing anything that might offend another person. I’m all for positive social change on a real, person-to-person basis, but it’s not going to be achieved through complaining about an art exhibit.
Comments are closed.