Kara Walker has not lost her nerve

Of this image Darrel Pinckney observes in the forthcoming NY Review of Books

Walker’s titles set the mood, but they also set you up, and the texts of her catalogs can be intimidating in their pretended didacticism. A medium-size work done in ink and collage, Scraps, is one of the images that linger in the mind long after you have seen it. Walker shows a naked young black girl in a bonnet, with a small ax raised in her left hand. She is making off with the large head of a white man. She might even be skipping. This isn’t Judith; it’s a demented Topsy in her festival of gore. Slavery drove both the slaver and the enslaved mad and itself was a form of madness. It’s the look Walker puts in the little girl’s visible eye. Racial history has broken free and is running amuck. But even this work has a strange elegance. She is not an exorcist, is not trying to be therapeutic. It is the way she fills up her spaces. With Walker you feel that everything is placed with delicacy and each gesture conveys so much.

When Kara Walker’s art first appeared, many critics – particularly critics of color – expressed great concern that she uncritically displayed some of the worst racist clichés about black people. One would expect such voices today to be at least very mute. Rather, critics now see that she is using such images to her own ends. To say this should not merely to say tha she has appropriated these tropes. Rather, as the NY Review of books maintains:

Kara Walker’s images comprise an army of the unlikely, those grotesques and comics that white people invented in the effort to persuade themselves—and black people as well—that black people were only fit for servitude, and that they were incapable of and uninterested in revolt. Walker turns against whiteness what white people invented.

Pinckney is discussing a new show of Walker’s art and the accompanying catalogue: Kara Walker: Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season.

Black Lives Matter Is the title of Pinckney’s review. His piece gives us an eloquent account of how it could seem otherwise. Do read it.

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