Dr. Kara Walker
At SIKKEMA Jenkins & Co.
Recently I took a group of art majors from the university where I am employed to New York City to experience first hand the original works of art by the masters and the world class museums and galleries that the city offers. This exposure was designed to enhance the students appreciation and knowledge of those works of art that are normally only appreciated by the references to them in the text books for their art history, art appreciation, or survey courses. On the designated or assigned art tour destinations, were the galleries in the Chelsea area and a number of exhibitions they were required to see. One of those exhibitions included the works of Kara Walker entitled, Dust Jackets For the Niggerati- And Supporting Dissertations, Drawings submitted Ruefully by Dr. Kara E. Walker.
The exhibition at the Sikkema Jenkins & Co. gallery featured new graphite drawings and hand-printed texts on paper. The press sheet for the exhibition explains that this body of work grew out of the artist’s search for understanding of the way power asserts itself in interpersonal and geopolitical spheres. It also revealed that as Dr. Walker embarked on this quest, the figural elements, which had begun to disappear in her work, were now emerging again in what the artist describes as a “giddy embrace” of the figural and the narrative.
The large one-person exhibition of mostly black and white images explored themes of transition and migration that runs throughout the history of African American migration from the south to the north in the 20th century. The very large drawings on paper recalled the cycle of destruction and renewal within a community that struggled to identify itself in new ways as it relocated from rural to urban environments in various parts of the country. That emergence of what African American historian and scholar Alain Locke coined the “New Negro” and those newly constructed Black identities are explored in the subject matter of these powerful drawings.
I must admit, that I have never been a fan of this artists work. There has always, for me, been something very distasteful about what appeared to be character assassination and self-hatred. The cartoon characterization antebellum sexual social violence and elongated penises penetrating bodies from forty feet were just intolerable. But, I am now a fan of her drawings. The strong narrative present – both explicit and implied – about the issues of a communal fluctuation resonate vibrantly in the images. The same issues sex, violence and dissolution that Walker is noted for are still prevalent in the work, but so are statements of independence, newly discovered identities and self-esteem. There, as the viewer, maneuvers throughout the crowd of viewers and adjusts to the “In Your Face” content of the works, you realize that this is an artist who can draw. Who really understands the concepts of figure ground relationships, form, line, tonality of mark making as she weaves her story. The impact of the work phenomenal
The mark making is wonderful. Her gritty smudgy energy of line undulates in a variety of weights and measures that kept me engaged with the subject matter. She is very confident draftsman in her mark making abilities. The May ’11 issue of Art in American has an interview with Kara Walker about her preparations for this exhibition. In the article she explains that she has been drawing since the age of five. Most famous for her silhouettes and paper cut outs, she says that drawing has always been at the core of her art. In reference to the cutouts, she says “ The drawings start out furtively; they’re not drawn from life. They develop in a flurry of ideas and mark making. It’s always satisfying to find-from among the fifty smudges that count for an arm, say-the one that’s going to make it. The cut is a form of editing.” In the drawings for this exhibition the edits reveal themselves as soft erasures that complement the tonal quality of the finished work. The interaction between form and image is powerful.
In discussing her command of the figural elements Ms. Walker explain that she had taken figure-drawing classes at Georgia State since the age of 14, and had made lots of drawings leading up to the cut pieces she is famous for. So she felt it important to bring all of that information out into the open. The artist says, “…. while I am not always as disciplined as that, I do love to draw. Though my lines is cartoony, my gods are Goya, Daumier and Hogarth: I’m still trying to make figures emerge from darkness as wonderfully as theirs do.”
My engagement with this work in this was evocative. Walker engages the act of drawing in a way that she doesn’t render; so much as she harmonizes the accidental or reckless with the considered and deliberate. Therefore her skillful mastery of the medium can force a repose to the habit of instant comprehension in the work and clarity of the message, which is very strong. The visual images of this exhibition will impact the language of my work for some time to come.