Kara Walker has been a potent, if controversial, presence in the art world since she premiered her first large-scale cut-paper piece, Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, at the Drawing Center in New York in 1994. Her much-lauded midcareer survey — “Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love,” at the Hammer, following venues in Minneapolis, Paris and New York — leaves little doubt as to why. She was 24 at the time of that piece, fresh out of the Rhode Island School of Design, three years shy of a MacArthur grant and already looking very close to the top of her game. A 50-foot antebellum narrative in silhouette form, involving, among other things, an act of underage interracial fellatio, a slender black figure floating skyward on a massively inflated penis, and an assortment of salacious activities occurring beneath skirts, the piece appears in the first room of the Hammer’s elegant installation and is as intrepid an artistic statement as anything that follows, combining youthful audacity with a dauntingly sophisticated handling of form, accessible — indeed, ineluctable — imagery with searing racial critique.
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Kara Walker, Negress Notes (Brown Follies) (1996-1997)
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Kara Walker, The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (1995)
A lot has been made of Walker’s use of the silhouette, and for good reason. Her appropriation of the form, while not, perhaps, as original as it is often made out to be (Lari Pittman had been playing with it for years, as Christopher Knight pointed out in his recent L.A. Times review), was nonetheless a shrewd and radical gesture, encompassing a broad swath of historical referents while casting her central theme — America’s tortured racial history — in stark, visually literal terms. In a conceptual sense, the silhouette functions in much the same way as a stereotype, reducing the complexity of the individual to a mere outline while evacuating everything within. The physical embodiment of a shadow, it also alludes to the doppelgänger, the alter ego, the dark side of human nature, allowing Walker to present her convoluted tales as a sort of shadow history, the dystopic flip side of the official version, reflecting not facts but the often-perverse expressions of the subconscious. In a pictorial sense, the silhouette is both a presence and an absence, a thing and the negation of that thing. It denies viewers the assurance of a stable, representational space and teases the eye into a kind of flickering confusion between what’s there and not there, between intimacy and distance, specificity and abstraction.
It is a form, furthermore, that Walker is remarkably adept at. The traditional silhouette was a staid and necessarily static affair, made by tracing the shadow of a stationary sitter, but Walker’s silhouettes never stop moving. They leap, tumble, prance, saunter, fight, fornicate, defecate, ride horses, give birth, swing axes and swords, suckle one another’s breasts, sever one another’s limbs, and, as previously noted, float through the sky with grotesquely swollen genitalia. It is a testament to the refinement of Walker’s graphic instincts that in none of these cases is the articulation of the action the least bit ambiguous. Strange, complicated and frequently obscene acts are conveyed with a greater degree of clarity, indeed, than most viewers are likely to be comfortable with — these aren’t always easy things to look at. The extensive cast of characters is similarly nuanced, rooted in stereotype and caricature but shot through with distinct emotional and psychological undercurrents. The latter is especially true in the film and video works that fill the latter half of the show, and in which the silhouettes become puppets and the narratives extend across time rather than the wall.
All that said, the revelation of the show for me came in the two small rooms just to the right of the dramatic opening tableau, with several groupings of letter-size drawings and watercolors that the artist made in the mid- to late ’90s. The silhouette has come to be seen as Walker’s trademark — the art world does love a trademark — but in fact the motif represents only a facet of her complete oeuvre, which includes, in addition to the drawings and the films, static projections, text works, large-scale paintings, and collages. Exceptional technical sensitivity is a constant throughout (she is as agile with a brush as she is with an X-Acto knife); so too is the almost audacious degree of conceptual, intellectual and emotional complexity. It’s in the drawings, however, that the real breadth of Walker’s overall project reveals itself, in part because the struggle between these elements is so vividly apparent. As is often the case with drawings in general, they offer a glimpse of the artist wrestling with herself: with her impressions, her ideas, her impulses, her imagery, her technique. What emerges from the struggle, above all, is the sense of a fierce and unrelenting intelligence.
The most poignant — and painful — of the several series of drawings included here is Do You Like Cream in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?, which Walker produced in 1997, shortly after receiving the MacArthur grant and finding herself the subject of aggressive criticism by an older generation of African-American artists, who condemned her work as derogatory and pornographic. Betye Saar, who led the campaign, accused her of “selling us down the river” for handing such imagery over to white audiences. This series is Walker’s response: a vitriolic 66-page document examining the fundamental dynamics of representation, ethnic identity and artistic responsibility. The imagery, which consists primarily of figures — black and white, male and female, historical and contemporary — is raw, violent, occasionally quite beautiful, and as pointedly derogatory, it seems, as she can make it. The captions and passages of text are angry, sarcastic, self-deprecating, sardonic and doleful in turn. “The Race Traitor,” she tags one drawing, “A Memoir in Words and Pictures.” “The final solution: How to unfairly stereotype white people,” she posits in another, adding in the lower right-hand corner: “for balance.”
Despite all its bitterness, the tone of the work is one of genuine soul-searching, resulting, one suspects, in a strengthened sense of purpose. Given the work that followed in the decade between then and now, one could hardly accuse Walker of betraying the cause: The later films, paintings, collages and text pieces are, if anything, more aggressive in their investigation of the national trauma of slavery and the persistence of racism. But she doesn’t make it easy, or comfortable, or palatable — because, as she seems to be insisting, it’s not. “I don’t know how much I believe in redemptive stories, even though people want them and strive for them,” she says in the exhibition brochure. “They’re satisfied with stories of triumph over evil, but then triumph is a dead end. Triumph never sits still. Life goes on. People forget and make mistakes. Heroes are not completely pure, and villains aren’t completely evil.”
KARA WALKER: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love | Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Through June 8 | (310) 443-7000