The silhouette as reagent in Kara Walker’s Gone (1994) and other works.

Rev., August 23, 2015.

Disclaimer: This treatment was prepared for a lecture to be delivered in Art and Agency, a course I taught at UNL in Fall, 2015, focusing on the concept of the “reagent.” For various reasons, it was never delivered. This represents the application of theory to an artist’s practice, it is an exercise in model-building, not a formal documentation of the artist’s work. A review of the movie Mandingo (1975) is included in the appendix.

Of the artists of my generation, whom I watched come of age, Kara Walker is on the younger side, born 15 years after me. That means that she arrived on the scene at the end of the postpop moment, and at the end of the neoconceptual moment, and when picture theory was fading into history. But when I saw her work, and was immediately on board. Why?

It remained, in the early 90s, a cause of some concern that the American postpop artists had settled into a rather uncritical posture as art relates to life and as popular art relates to life, by and large not challenging the distance, or the proxemics, between art and life in the pop culture. Still, for Americans, media was technological heaven, changing our world, and yet real life was just—eh. The fact that most of the postpop artists deconstructed popular or bad art by strategies of sarcasm (Ashley Bickerton), smart or cleverness (it was actually called smart art for a while), ersatz cuteness (Jeff Koons, exploiting the limited art world perception of popular culture as kitsch, a term I always thought to be snobbish and exclusionary) no longer seemed adequate to address growing issues in the culture.

The only artist (excluding discussion of Mike Kelley here) who dug down below into the underbelly of American popular culture was Cady Noland, whose show, Our American Cousin, again, in, I think, 1989, at Colin de Land,  also remains one of the signal events of my art-looking life. This is fairly typical of here work (she is very scarcely represented online)

kara-1Noland dove down into a world of tabloidism, where the mythology of American life is haunted by our original sins of violence and slavery and cheap commercialization and objectification, to create a movingly forlorn vision of America run amuck. In the tabloid world, all values are topsy turvy, you don’t quite know what’s what, everything is exaggerated and distorted, black and white in the extreme, and people are best represented in a lampooned political caricature way as constituting objects evoking the rock bottom or end result of their deepest darkest impulses. It is a symbolic world, I think a lattice level world of heavy meaning—tabloid art is, no doubt, heavy art. Here, for example, is her version, told in symbols and signs attached to a lattice, of Betty Ford and her Daughters

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I then, on the basis of this, felt that the Pop art faith in the mainstream and its ability to sanitize and redeem, the faith that media can lift us up out of life, and we can dwell there free of the baggage of encumbrances of ethnicity, past, etc etc., because we are “moderns,” had become discredited, and that America had flipped upside down into a tabloid state (The artists that I felt subscribed to this darker vision of America I included in my show, Tabloid, at the Sally Hawkins Gallery in New York, in 1992, including Lutz Bacher, who has gone on to be one of the most dependable tabloid artists, Walter Robinson, Angela Bourodimos, who was doing straight up tabloid girl power trophy art, and then other artists whose work over time has shifted discourse). Noland appeared to me to be the artist that closed the distance between art and life, to create a tighter nexus between art and life, in which the media and its support of demons and stereotypes and its glorification of idiots and assassins and mass murderers and the like fed a confusion in which the boundary of art and life was blurred. That is, she darkly mythologized the bowels of American life, and brought up the dark figures, as in a haunting, here is in fact her Oozewald, that is, Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of President Kennedy, whose image bounces off deep fears in me, since I came of age watching that event on TV, but here rendered as a kind of porous creature of the black lagoon, shot through by our interest in him, oozing upward at us.

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At the bottom of the tabloid world, in the ultimate bottom of the bottom, was death,  mortality, criminality, and especially sexual crime, a place of terrible things. Only Noland was addressing this in art at the moment. In the subsequent grunge moment, vanguarded in popular culture by Smells Like Teen Spirit, the physical rundownness and abjectness of the object is what the art world, obviously, latched onto, and it was thought that exploring forensic-like works of an abstract sort was enough to be art. In many cases, it was not. But in so far as the presence of a garbage or junk or abject aesthetic did raise the “is it art?” question it inadvertently pushed art down to the border of life and in that, that new closeness of danger was a good, real thing. The problem was that in forensic art I was never that interested in the abjectness per se of the objects, by way of a sort of upside down or depleted formalism, but in the “what just happened here?” “scene of the crime” aspect of the installation, and it was in the mythology evoked by the objects in Noland that I swooned with pathos and worry over the fate of a nation addicted to violence.

Because the YBA artists coming out of England just then seemed to be making art in a place closer to life, and saturated with dark tabloid themes, confronting death, and the like, I immediately, when they arrived, jumped ship, because of their work’s immediacy to the moment and its closeness to real life. The devices of their art yanked art closer to life, put the face of art back into the vomit of life–this was the corrective that was needed for us to get over our faith in popular culture and media and our belief that it could save us. My belief in the YBAs and my support of Damien Hirst, who in the beginning was a very good artist, was based purely on the fact that for an enactive critic the scene is a road and you get a sense of what you need to see and have as you live on that road and then when you come upon something new on the road and it gives you what you need, there it is. It is unfair for critics 25 years later to lament that Hirst’s pickled sharks are, per se, formalistically, in flatearth perception, crap, because in their grandeous tabloid confrontation with death as it confronted and even came close or some of them to cancelling out the defenses of art, it was exactly what was needed just then. All this to be discussed in detail later.

Kara Walker, therefore, emerged at precisely the right moment, in 1994, when the market was rebuilding itself on a new synthesis of these ideas, and setting off on a more tabloid oriented and YBA influenced direction. In the checkerboard of white cubes and black boxes that make up the New York art world, and all the custodians of their squares, in particularly, many African American artists from the uplift generation, who felt that art by African Americans had to rise above negritude and other genre aspects of their work, she was loathed, and her displaying slaves played with like toys by masters in the context of a materialistic presentation usually given to sweet or stately feeling was viewed as outrageous.

But to me, it was perfect. Walker was a grunge artist, a tabloid artist, a postpop artist, a neoconceptual artist, a folk artist, all of the above, all in one person. Here’s why I see her in this way. I have come to see that all great art, especially in the postpop era, where an artist must choose and then seems to have to live in the wake of that choice of materials or program ever after, all art must be based on a strong and flexible reagent. Walker selected, in a eureka I have not yet documented, that she could say all the conflicted things she wanted to say about the legacy of slavery on African American life (a common theme in black studies literature in academia, where you can find any number of scholars to deconstruct how the lingering roles of the mammy, etc etc, continue to haunt and restrict African American women) by using the benign material and convention of the silhouette. This was either a stroke of luck or genius. It must have been a very exciting moment, and then, several times after that, more exciting again, as she realized that it could go in so many different ways. Why? The cut out paper silhouette was able to host scenes opposite of its original intention because of its previous intermedial life, its prior use by mainstream white culture, its prior use by horror movie culture, and its fading away in time to become just a nostalgic affectation enjoyed by ladies with flowery and puppy tastes projected on the better past that they do not live in. For all that, for its complex intermedial history, the black cutout silhouette serves as one of the great examples of what I now call a reagent in a body of work.

A reagent in chemistry is “substance or compound that is added to a system in order to bring about a chemical reaction, or added to see if a reaction occurs.” In many cases, reagents have no meaning or purpose, except that when another chemical is put into it, there is the desired reaction. As such, it kind of passively hosts the reaction of other things on or in it. It also can be used in a number of other situations with other chemicals by chemists desiring other reactions. Using this concept metaphorically, I classify reagency as a healthy and creative type of agency whereby the agency itself revives and refreshes itself by means of doing a reset or simply taking in or on elements that make, for example, this year’s observance of a holiday not a mere motion-going repeat of last year but a separate and new celebration characterized by new entry energy and a reset based on it, that is, by a reagentifying revival of the agent. While reagency is therefore a positive form of agency, a reagent embeds it in a medium or object itself.

A reagent material (or other element, gesture, form, color or time element) would serve an artist well if it has in it inherent capacities to expand and spin and mean different things over time. In the past, I termed this quality polysemy, and exploring the polysemy of a material as it has been used in the culture at large and then making art from that has always struck me as one of the best ways to make art. Polysemy also involves puns, deepening the meaning of things, conducting against a reagent any number of revising efforts (all of which I mapped out in the 80s, regression, retrogression, sublimation, I would also add from Belting now animation and others). Because it has this malleable quality, and can go any direction, it acts as an antidote against one-liner-ism, and even better, it’s presence, if you choose to instrumentalize the reagent in a particular body of work at a particular time, that serves as the conscious, and the reagent’s prior use provides the work with an unconscious, which lends it a deep, but also easy going feeling. A reagent has a very easy and inviting surface, and a very deep and complicated substructure: it allows the artist to make it all look like it is easy, but then there are punches to come. Like a gyro or vortex spinning at the heart of an artist’s creativity, the potential of the reagent is the secret, hidden force of great contemporary art.

It is likely that as a student at RISD, which has a strong material culture, decorative arts and craft tradition, Walker wanted to speak of African American themes, but without doing it in the blunt political discourse style of Dred Scott, or in the subtle critique style of, for example, Fred Wilson. She chose a more conflicted path. As a result, Walker’s work, in terms of other African American artists, is much closer to David Hammons mock comic postpop negritude send-ups than to the pious preachings of Glenn Ligon. Her entirely eschewing the patrolling and power-defending politeness of political correctness, in 1994, after a few market circles of extreme correctness, came as an immense relief.But how did she get there? At some point, she might have come upon the antique Yankee tradition of the silhouette. The history of the silhouette is rich and deep, I won’t go into it here, there’s a nice wikipedia page on it, but the point is by the middle of the 19th century, the silhouette fad meant that all upper class homes had silhouettes of loved ones in them, and that they for a time replaced paintings or cameos of loved ones as their silhouetteness in profile seemed to capture with metaphor-made-literal razor sharp accuracy, the very nature of being reminded of someone, as, by their blackness, they were there, but they did not press on you anything more than a moment to rest one’s eye, while one was thinking of another. I have devised this notion of the silhouette, as, basically, the visual equivalent then of the texting today, from the movie The Creeping Flesh, see my note (not yet posted).

kara-4My point is, a full on picture was imposing, writing a letter took a lot of commitment, but a silhouette, it was perfectly poised materially to capture the airy but shadowy nature of the “thinking of you” moment. The eyes rested on it, then thought of the other, then glanced away, enough. But the silhouette also came to be considered de rigeur in the upper class, and, since it seems to have been used, as noted, a token of mindfulness, a symbol of  deference and discretion, their circumspect politeness, their, in short, cultivation. While silhouettes began as cheap poor man’s pictures, they ended up, for their qualities, being symbols of the refined mental propriety of the proprietary classes.

Walker must have sighed, isn’t it odd, slave owning folk, in the nineteenth century, doing such bad things, such very unladylike and ungentlemenly things, self-adoring their discretion through the elegant art of the silhouette, and they have chosen to represent themselves in unconscious black face, without a hint of irony or selfawareness. It was just……a very queer intermedial nexus, filled with all sorts of blind spots. It is my guess that at first this is as far as Walker went, clearly operating in the picture theory universe of the deconstruction of representation  discourse. I do not think she  yet cultivated the intramural inversion of silhouettes in movies and horror movies, that I have charted out (silhouettes came to signal in the background of a shot in a movie, there is trouble in this house, or, worse, the family line in this house is about to be destroyed, see my treatment on this theme in the Pet Semetary and the Chucky movies), and believe that when she began to work, she felt that white America viewed the silhouette as a quaint device evoking a refined past, a blind art form then, and she would invert it to show how white folk back then were really treating black folk, and what if they put all that on their walls?

I also strongly suspect that Walker had cultivated in some way the verboten mandingo-like blaxpolitation movies of the 60s and 70s, Mandingo (1975) (see my review in appendix) itself being amazingly frank regarding the awful things white plantation owners did, the normalcy created in their lives in the midst of sick dementedness, the wife’s acceptance then refusal of the routine custom of her husband making of a slave negress a second wife, and then the terrible things all this sexual tension did to their houses, but a blaxploitation movie is a “tabloid” movie in that it sensationalizes the potential “scandal” in a thing, especially the sex, creating an unreal, exaggerated history, that nonetheless has some oomph to it, and a strong measure of truth, because at least it addresses the issues (if only to be able, as per exploitation, show some naked ladies). The fact that Walker’s landmark and career making work, Gone (1994), was a take off on Gone with the Wind (1939), which sensationalized the old south as a world of womanly scheming, but the darkies being all good and loyal, simply all that, turned upside down, reinforces this connection.

I work, then, from a simple model, white refinement reversed, by way of the silhouette, to do some truth telling about what was really going on in those houses. That is, somehow, Walker situated her spirit next to those silhouettes in situ, in those houses, and listened, and then she started cutting, giving figure to the truth of what was really being said. So if the lady of the house walks by a silhouette in situ and then hears the news that one of the slave girls has had another baby, well, let’s make a silhouette of the awful thing she might have said about her dropping it out of her like an animal, right on the ground, and put that up

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If you wanted to morph a standard silhouette into the insult that the slave girls were mindless voodooists who did awful things with chickens, why, I half don’t doubt they et em, might say the mistress of the house, then that too

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If you hear the master of the house full of refined silhouettes declare that the baby born that day ain’t going to be any good for selling, cause it is too small, then there’s a silhouette for that too (a baby born from Mandingo having sex with the white wife of the plantation master is actually killed off in the movie,  Mandingo, see apprendix)

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As we know from Mandingo and other films, presuming that there is a measure of truth under the mythology of exploitation, sex was on the mind of all persons living in those elegant silhouette-bearing houses all the time, and the sex most on the minds all the time was the sex that the master was having with the slave ladies, which the white wife just had to live with, appalled and horrified. And so it would come to be, in a paranoid world, that she fears his every encounter has a sexual orientation, her mind composing endless fantastical scenarios of worries of all the heathen and animal types of intercourse devisable with slaves who do not have to be respected as partner humans (Walker’s world is also a paranoid world)

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Even you see massa bounce a slave girl up and down on his knee, that too has to be worried over, as illicitly sexual

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Then of course the flip side of the sensationalized Mandingo scenario with regard to the slave culture is the horrible cruelty in the form of punishment and killing that was inflicted upon slaves, mere property to kill at one’s will. Walker is less forthcoming about the torture aspects of these horrors, but here’s a little girl being burned, maybe for being a witch

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This is the basic formula, then. Black silhouette has in it an intermedial history, which means that it can serve as a reagent, as many cultural meanings have been applied to it, per se. And then Walker makes use of the ironies inherent in those uses as she: 1) takes the primary discourse and reading of the silhouette as medial support items that help whites take a nostalgic view of the past and blind themselves to the realities of slavery, and she 2) tears open that screen by appropriating, through countering, the material, the device and the genre, to  3) through the voicing of the views of the masters to frame the scenarios, 4) turn it all upside down, ie negate it, to tell mandingolike exploitation stories with it. While exploitation art is art that pretends to deal with a serious subject, just so it can show you a lot of sex, reagentic art seeks to foreground those politely verboten topics, to create a shock in the content which then turns everything in the medium upside down. It is a recognizable “bad painting” stratagem, but what distinguishes Walker from others is that she fixated on the exploitation material and used it to turn the polite discourse upside down.

But then there are dangers in the reagent too. When an artist discovers a technique and an application, if they work it, and then, when the inspiration fades, lock in, and then exploit it, putting “ “ of self-reference behind it, so that Kara Walker, artist, begins to make “Kara Walkers,” then the art will lose power. When you follow an artist, you are ever on the watch out for this occurrence. There is some evidence of weakness. Walker has allowed herself to be photographed installing her art, a practice that emphasizes the technical aspects of it, thereby allowing polite art ladies to talk technique and never look at the content (tabloid art however is about content). From this photo, it is clear that Walker worked very hard to master a technique, that is, she became a master silhouette razorcutter (she has, in short, the supporting alchemy), and she took great care in installing her work

kara-12The previous picture also shows that all the silhouette pieces were preexisting, cut in the studio. Simply the fact by the way that she has taken a technique usually executed quite small scale, and done it large, would qualify her work for materialist wow art status, which is all about extension of technique to the point of eliciting a wow, but luckily it does not appear that this is what her work was about. In this picture, in fact, she is doing something with pressing paper over the edges, indicating to me that the edges were more important than the paper shapes. I suspect that she needed a sharp edge the way a photographer likes an in focus picture as opposed to a blurred one

kara-13The interesting thing about this is that she is doing it on site, herself (so in this regard ranks with Pensato and others as artists who do the installation in a kind of performative way on site). But the fact that she seems to concentrate on using a device and a screen of brown paper to press down the edge and make sure it lies flat on the wall, while ignoring the absolutely horrific content of not only a blowjob above, but a pedophile, and a slave pedophile blowjob again indicates to me how overly concentrated most artists are with their technique.

But there is an odder aspect of this tendency to picture Walker papering. I am a bit uneasy by the presence, for example, of this video in the middle of a presentation of the mural, back in the distance, it is literally a distancing technique, perhaps designed to offset close look at content

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And the fact that she is so often pictured in front of her work, working on her work, being workmanlike and blaise in the presence of awful scenes, which, in being worked, are reduced just back to paper, makes me suspect that with Walker there is a market need and a social need to make her the prototype of the art, and everything on the wall an expression of her inner self  (a modernist notion). Of course, the cult of the artist is in play here, as country club ladies can forgive any rudeness if the artist is an artist. But as just an artist in the postmodern sense, out front of her art, the agent of its agency, there is a strange rhyme between her body and her figures, between her blackness and her content, as if exonerating it, “its ok, she’s black, so she can say these things, she’s not racist,” and then that, in what some genius thought was a good picture, her crouching position, visually “catching” the baby she is in fact installing, makes of her a maternal figure (even more placating exploitation of her plumber’s butt here—subtly stereotyping her), which further softens the harsh meaning.  I do worry that forces are out there, which she is aware of and plays with, but which may still be too powerful for her, trying to not see or look askant at the content of her art (reinforcing as well the entire art world blindness with regard to content, where nothing is ever about what it is about), but these are meta issues, and it would seem, so far, and we are 20 years into her career, Walker has thus far avoided Mike Kelley’s mistake of letting the art world, and the breaching of a popular culture trope into the art world, talk her out of her art. There is no doubt about it, it is hard to become famous in the art world, then it is harder to not let that fame tear you apart as an artist).

kara-15But in this case, this emphasis is telling. Why would edge be so important? Why would it mean so much, that the silhouette as it were seemed to emerge from the wall itself, and sit on the wall in a way that glided into the wall, and was not roughly sitting on the wall. The answer is in Gone itself, where Walker expands upon her technique and her material a second time by arraying them as a classic panorama

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I wrote about this just the other day, on the use of the panorama as a device in horror movies (Friday the 13th (1977), with Peggy Fuery), to whisper or call out that trouble was coming in on the house from the other side of that wall. A panorama would seem to open the house up to the world beyond, but while this was a power act of domain surveying self-cult behavior and appraisal from the point of view of the master, with his whole domain visiable as it were from the picture window of his panorama, in horror movies it intramurally inverted. This was likely due to the visual tradition, not lost on viewers, but only gradually coming to consciousness, that in panorama rooms, with panorama wallpapers, the master sat at the table

kara-17the wide world without, which he ruled, was all about him (notice in this bustling port scene, several African Americans)

kara-18But then it is also true that what you saw most of the time in movies with rooms with paintings like this in them were that the servants and slaves stood back behind the table, to serve on the masters, and they kind of stepped out of the panorama, in their service reversing the trajectory

kara-19In any case, within movies itself, the panorama inverted, and became a symbol of trouble coming at the house. It is was no longer a picture window on all that one has, but a laundry list of all the troubles all one has brings your way. Again, whether or not Walker understood this at the time, I can’t say: I certainly had not yet studied the meaning of the panorama within the history of film (though have always been interested in panoramas in the prehistory of movies and as related to history painting for a good while). But she decided, I will display these figures in a panorama, and that is what she did

kara-20Since in this inverted state, the panorama bleeds off the wall, and one’s domain is replaced by a seethrough vision to all the problems and horrors besetting this, this represents a kind of haunting of the master’s house, better still of the white cube. Each vignette itself is a work of art, a flip of a conventional silhouette, often giving voice, as I imagine it, to some rude obscene racist comment made by a master, and then they arranged next to each other to create a lively counterpoint, adding to the shocks (shocking to see the hatted minister flip a black wench on his cock, even more so as he is peering into a black (tar?) puddle, where a little boy drowning is going down by the feet). It’s an added dimension, expanding its reagency.

And then it happens a third time. The key to keeping reagency as a power powerful is to let it flow, it is a flow, and it must manifest as a flow. There is no lecturing and political correct patrolling of nicety, there is no censorship or self-censoring, there is no tidying up and sanitizing. If this is the program that Walker has chosen, then she has to let it take her where it will. And Walker has shown herself willing and able to back off and let the chips fall where they may. Having unleashed the hounds of hell of the internal imperatives of her self-generating reagentic discourse, she has been wise enough to get out of its way, and let it ride, time and again “going there” and sometimes going too far, but in all cases, in every case, where that happens, still showing a willingness to let her work live and have a life of its own. To arrange these horrible vignettes in a beautiful array is not a tidying up procedure. It pulls back to surround the whole with the far niente ease of fate, it represents at the far exo-reagentic reaches of her mind, she still believes in the blinding mechanism of the silhouette to, even having raised it, put it all back to sleep again, and she has incorporated that beware into her work by allowing the white viewer to step back and see and enjoy the smooth and easy flow of the frankly harmonious negative (white) spaces between the vignettes, and misread it for a moment.

And Walker has been wise enough to include enough of the sweetness, to make the doubletake flip still work, these are pleasant vignettes, seen, as panoramas often are, from afar, and then they get brutal

kara-21There is just an undeniable visual pleasure in this art, because of its white tradition

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The panorama perspective likely also drew her vignettes up toward her, into the surface zone of the artwork complex, so that she began to think of them as more above or in front of a foreign ground, and from that she could insert other, more portable grounds. In an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005, which I really enjoyed, I loved how she made a body of print work in which her figures are ironically inserted over, to turn the meaning of the print behind upside down, romanticizing shots from Harper’s Weekly, which excited me, as that was one of the first body of historical reportage artwork that I latched onto to critique the romantic phoniness of coverage.

kara-23I remember paging through page after page of Harper’s Weekly and other publications of the time appalled at the routine romanticizing they did of the Civil War, and here Walker is making use of her silhouettes to haunt the hypocrisy out of those same images

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This represents a more counteragency state, as it precipitates upon a reagent, and, as such, this can become something like a virus, a curse, a sickness, a thing that attaches itself to you, in danger of becoming a posture, and then you cannot stop yourself. Sometimes you do it with glee, at other times you pull back. Seeing a lot of push and pull in her work, from quiet and cute moments, to harsh and extreme moments, from not going far enough, to going too far, is part of the life of having a counteragency reagent based art. If at no time as you engage a discourse critically, you at no point ‘fall into’ it and succumb to its charms, if you do not struggle in the long term, not only with your hatred of the discourse, but your acknowledgement of your weakness vis a vis the discourse, that it is strong, that it has much that can and does seduce you, that there will be times when your critique is disarmed, and there will be quieter times when the harsh stuff appalls you and then harsher times when the quiet stuff is thrown away, if there is no danger that the discourse targeted by your critique will seduce you, then you have not fully addressed it, and acknowledged its power. Only by that acknowledgement, will your war against it be real (I experience a similar thing as Walker in my long-term struggle between self-identifying as an Irish Catholic and then my repeatedly reverting to a weird Anglophilia, even though the British did great damage to “my people”—it goes on and on).

As a result of her push and pull, Walker’s art has still another characteristic of great art that is too often overlooked in the art world, and sometimes even mistakenly poo-poohed. And that is that, having got her technical armentarium down, she is on a roll, it is prolific, she makes a lot of art, and it shows, not in the sense that she is outrunning the work, and outstripping it, making it weaker, but it just keeps exploring and building and going off in that way, and then that. It is as if the work has presented so many possibilities to her, that she is running after her work—always a very good place to be in. This liveliness is another key component of the ease and no sweat composure of a completed work of art. Sometimes Walker goes abstract, and one might think, too abstract

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Sometimes she veers over into gruesome, and gets too gothic, and one might think, too figurative

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Sometimes she just has a notion, you’re not quite sure what’s up

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And at some point, she can even experiment, so in this obviously transitional work, perhaps getting a bit tired of the silhouette thing, seeking some new way to situate it in a new intermedial nexus, what looks like an attempt to paint things around it , which seems to me to be a failure

kara-28But the presence of the reagent  provides her so much wiggle room that she is free to pursue these pushes and pulls, without endangering her art.

Very much according to the same model as I mapped out for John Currin, once Walker solidified and established command of her conceptual armentarium in terms of material, technique, color, subject matter and time factor, as a formal apparatus that had great breadth and width because it was a legitimate reagent, she was  free to “take it on the road” and by that I mean imagine for her babies a new context, a new setting, a new way to present it. This then lead to her video art, which is a variation on her silhouettes

kara-29Sometimes shown in video format

kara-30Sometimes even shown in a tableaux setting

kara-31And then in large scale installations, where the video is reduced to overhead projected scrims of moving color, with the silhouettes back in place. Same elements, all mixed up in newly creative ways. I in particular loved this moving installation at Sikkema in I think 2007.

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And again

kara-33sometimes these light shows can pause to offer a regroup to pure vignette power, as with this red willow

kara-34But most of the time the projection serves to activate the notion of the panorama. But then, too, it represents still a further extension of the panorama, to the motion picture, and the early history of the motion picture. Since it was during this era of entertainment that the magic lantern developed a number of different light show ways to present things, and one of them was, historically, the incorporation of shadowplay silhouette in film and even in puppet show stage plays, Walker stumbles by sheer luck into another incredibly rich historical load of intermedial and racially charged intermedial history, which she can play with ad infinitum.

Which means that now sometimes she can go small and crafty, but even here to invade the children’s book, with her lovely silhouette aesthetic, that then turns up some very rude realities, is another case of intermedial upturning that is genius

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But sometimes she goes quite broad with the panoramas, reminding us again that that format is there to allow the viewer to get tripped up in an expanded networked version of the original turnupside down of the silhouette, to step back and just passively take in the whole of it, without regard to content, and just float or glide on the surface of a deracinated and emptied out “it’s just history,” an edge and a resolution that I think Walker must like., or at least acknowledge as part of being a person in time and in and out of history. To state the case, I present Prince Charles viewing a panorama last June of the Panorama of Waterloo, because we know how totally pissed off the Germans and the French are over that, still today (I’m joking )

kara-36The fact that the viewer is left to it, to take it in or not, is an aspect of that far framed  force I term exo-reagency, a difficult force to get a handle on. But let me try. Counterreality is reality created by a person who has, for various reasons, turned away from the reality they grew up in, or were supposed to thrive in, but they turned away. But then they inevitably find that turning away does not really open up to a new life, they are placed as on a cliff, as it were, looking out onto the abyss, their shoulder turned to their world, but still part of their world. In that case, they their counterreality in their imagination only, they turn a shoulder to their world (live with a chip on their shoulder), then go back fashioning a counterreality out of the material of the reality they left behind, but reimagined. Hopefully, in this confabulation, reagency will thrive. Over time, developing the milieu and repertore of this private “personal mythology” world, the repeated precipitation of counteragency onto reagency can result in a wide spin out to exo-agency (this takes time, trailing from short-term memory to working memoery to long-term memory), where the mind in its farthest reaches is excavated to flow and speak n total freedom as if by ventriloquism though art. In those far reaching exo-agentic zones, any number of simplifying explanations of life are intelligently cultivated to make life as represetned in the art must more straightforward and meaningful, full of agency too, than in the actual conflicted, rationalized and exploitation-ridden real world. This lends to exo agentic space a distinct mythological or religious aura—some artists get to this point, where everything they do is like a pull on a spiderweb and it all means something in a world where everything means something. The mere experience of this world, in a world where there is so little of this, is one of the great life-saving thrills of art itself, it is not so much empowering, but revivifying, waking one up to life, it is, then, I suppose, a votive-cult thing, a final offering made to the life force itself. So, the presence of a mythology, of a whole world in which one’s art lives, and in which one’s art works as a kind of fictional force to overwrite the real with a preferred or ideal or even horrific (but if simplified, at least comprehensible real), all of this pushes the reagent out to wider and wider potential. And this finally means that an artist who has reached the high stratosphere of the exo-reagentic, realizes in time that he or she is actually writing over all life, his or her whole life, they are rewriting and reassigning meaning to the whole thing, and this mandate creates such a drive that it acts like the pull of a far off sunrise, to pull them on to greater and greater things. I takes a lot of opening up of mental full brain space to get to the hippocampal zone of the long-term consequent memories of one’s art, but it is apparent to me that Walker is on her way.

And, yet, in a career, always bumps in the road. Walker’s most recent full scale show, at the Art Institute in Chicago, in 2013, I think, shows some signs that her rather comfortable academic existence may be causing her to self-censor her rudeness and her tabloid undertone raucousness, and tidy up and be more polite and sensible. There are more straight lines, more frames, more nice spaces, the fact that she went white against a grey wall, it is a legitimate twist of her practice, but it’s meaning is not entirely clear to me

kara-37What interests me most is that she has decided to display in white rather tame scenes, and then counterpointed them with an installation of smaller drawings. These then come direct head on into my discourse studying the history of pictures hung on walls in middle class homes, which I do by way of the evidence of horror movies, and of the confluence in intermedial history of the silhouette as small picture in middle class home, and its coming off the wall as a whispering haunter, symbolic of trouble in the house. But when she does a salon spray of this sort, it speaks to me of, as in Chucky 3 (see my essay), the demise of the family, strangely, a new sort of pessimism

kara-38

This work also includes large scale drawing, which I have never thought to be her forte (note: in 2016, she solved this problem, with the Ecstasy of St Kara, Cleveland Museum of Art).But generally is given tone by the counterpoint confrontation between whited out vignettes, which seem to have given up some of their power, and then a drawing on the wall of a gallery, it is beautiful, but it strikes me as Walker again being in a more abstract region of the push pull that is allowed by her art.

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All in all, Kara Walker is a terrific artist. She may be the best African American artist of my time in viewing art. She might be one of the very best artists of “my generation,” really her generation. Her example has inspired many others, whose work would fall in line behind her. But her work has also, for the art world, often seemed too rough. But the key to the mystery of why Walker soared and learned how to manage and control the nexus of meaning with all of its plus-minus charges inside of it is that she discovered a fundamental reagent (a material,gestural, formal, black paper-cutting-silhouette, historical-intermedically complex format) that was so pliable and agile, so rich in potential and in relationships with others, so self-contained in terms of embodying in it a “double blind” which locks out lecture and keeps in art, keeping the agency in the art itself, it is because she discovered this, and so many other artists never do, that her work soars. That she then was able. through her counteragentic recreation of a tabloid world where vile and violent things are the norm,  a harsh vision of African American life and the legacy of slavery in the mindset and rootwork of white American life, in effect, harvested from her reagent, to develop variations and expansions and reagentifying reinventions and reimaginings that just go on, and on, and even as they go on, raise other issues, and other relationships, it is all a body of work that actively grows in front of you. For this, Kara Walker has her thing, her milieu, her repertore, her philosophy, all of which orbits about her core reagent to continually spin off great contemporary art.

Appendix

from RoMMerreviews:

583 Mandingo (1975), three stars, May 10 2013 (with pics, in case you think Kara Walker is the first person to address all this).

Quentin Tarantino has declared that Mandingo is one of his favorite exploitation movies and used it as a source to model some of the action, especially the mandingo fighter storyline, in his movie Django Unchained. As such, his movie was a weird mesh of a spaghetti western reverting east to encircle blaxpploitation movies/subgenre slavery. But Mandingo was a Dino De Laurentis production, and stared James Mason and Susan George, it was trashy, but, for that, a serious little attempt to put a postGonewith the Wind novel to film. The movie starts and ends with a terrific song by Muddy Waters, his guitar all but weeping the blues, and this tone recurs throughout out as at every strange headturn of the plot a dulcimer hits a flat note twang. The story is that at Falconcrest, a rather rundown plantation whose suffocating claustrophic quality is emphasized terrifically by its barren floors, worn walls, heavy mosquito nets and especially the drapes and curtains of Susan George’s bedroom prison, has a mean father, Mason, and a sympathetic oaf of a son who has a thing for the black ladies. As a result, the movie starts when one of the slave girls must go through a ritual of losing her virginity to the master, we see her bathe, we see her enact, we see her nude, twice or three times.

kara-40Meanwhile, master has the rheumatism and following old medical belief  tries to put it off into something else, though in this case the something else is a small black boy who has to lie at the bottom of his chair or even bed with the master’s dirty feet on him, and that too is bizarre (but a common medical superstition at the time)

kara-41After the young master comes up to his bedroom, after deflowering the slave girl, we find, from a boob shot, that is, boob in the frame, that he also has a regular “bed wench”, and they have a rather nice relationship

kara-42The really eerie and effective thing about all this, and what makes it something other than exploitation (the exploitation is in the sex), is that it is all just seems taken for granted or resigned to as normal and as a result communicates again the suffocating sense of living in and making something of and culturing the everyday nightmare of slavery. It is intriguing that the whites begin to talk like the blacks, for example, saying what fers and lessin you, knocked for pregnant, and sucker for child, it shows how deep it went. I don’t doubt in fact that most of the facts in the movie were fairly well researched. The old slave who watches over all then gets caught trying to read and since the masters think reading will make him human or start thinking and join up with another slave revolt he is hung upside down naked and paddled on the behind with a board with nails in it, a scene or method of torture pretty much borrowed by Tarantino, verifying the source. As if the master has not had enough when he is off on a road trip to buy some slaves he discovers a lovely comfort girl offered him and when he gets her to look him in the eyes he falls for her, and she thinks he is a sensitive white man because he winced at his pal beating his bed wench before he entered her, so, within the coping limits of the time, they form a bond.

kara-43On the same trip though he meets Susan George and they agree to marry but then on a honeymoon in a lovely Bourbon street loft in New Orleans he huffs off after discovering that she is not a virgin and goes to a whorehouse where he backs off the girls but buys Ken Norton as Mede, short for Ganymede, a mandingo fighter. So it is true: this movie was all about the mandingo boxing circuit, and in the main fight that he is trained for, and for which even pa comes to New Orleans to see, he has to kill the opponent to survive the fight. That fight scene is terrific, and also included, by the way, biting (one wonders if deep down in his subconscious Mike Tyson wasn’t getting all mandingo when he bit an ear off). .All of this has been discovered since to be urban legend, but still told by Tarantino. It should be said that Susan George married him because she was desperate to get away from her family but back at the plantation she immediately comes up against her husbands favor to his bed wench and begins to drink. She is thoroughly nasty and miserable throughout, George puts in quite a performance all cooped up sweaty and drunk in the mosquito net hell.

kara-44At one point she gets so desperate for sex that she blackmails Mede into sleeping with her, with a modest nude scene, but when she gets pregnant and gives birth to a black baby the doctor has to kill it by letting the umbilicial bleed out and her husband comes up with a drink with poison in it to kill her, then he goes orders Mede to prepare a big pot of boiling water and shoots him into it, pushing aside his bed wench on the way, not before the old slave grabs a rifle in disgust and shoots James Mason on his rundown porch.

kara-45We know from diaries from the time that white women were in fact tormented by the attraction of their men to the slave women: this is of course the exploitation seam of the slavery story that would make a lurid tale, and here it is. But to dismiss this movie as just melodramatic soap opera trash is to ignore the fact that it seemed to me to overall tell a truer tale of the everyday evil of slavery, as it destroyed everyone, and was frank too in having plenty of outraged scenes of slave families being separated and sold, and slave markets, and all around vile behavior to the slaves, than Django Unchained. But this is how culture is: people trying to get by, they make up the rules as they go along, they put up with things, some things they can’t change, are terrorized into other things, get used to other things. then they go crazy, and lash out, and on an on. Mandingo, it’s a haunted house movie where the ghosts are the whites undone by the crime they have built their life around, and for the thoroughness of its depiction of this corruption, including, in the end, the right to murder their slaves, it’s actually quite good.

 

 

 

 

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