Saturday, November 24, 2007

African American Art in New York City

I was in New York City last weekend, and as often the case when I am down,I spent some time catching up on the latest exhibits. There are two extraordinary current exhibits by contemporary African American artists that are worth a visit.

At the MOMA, there is a retrospective of the sculptor Martin Puryear, who unlike most of his peers, or for that matter most of his predecessors, works in wood, rather than the more typical stone or metal. This gives his works an extraordinary texture and sense of fragility, and one is often aware that one is gazing at things that were formerly alive. Most of Puryear’s sculptures are formalist, and have their meaning in an expression of form. A few of his works however, do have external, programmatic meanings, and a real tour-de-force is his “Ladder for Booker T. Washington,” a wooden ladder that rises thirty feet in the air, twisting, weaving, and narrowing, so it appears to be foreshortened into the heavens, a ladder that no one could, or would want to climb. This is a perfect metaphor for the perils of uplift and the step by step upward approach to economic and social success championed by Booker T. Washington, one step upwards, one step sideways, and one step backwards. It is perhaps more broadly a commentary on the problem of striving for success in general, trying to clamber to the top of Disraeli’s greasy pole---the higher you get on the ladder, the less secure you are, the more you wobble, and the further the distance to fall. In the end, almost everyone’s career resembles a scene from a Laurel and Hardy short.

At the Whitney there is a retrospective of the controversial work of Kara Walker. Walker primarily works with beautifully constructed silhouettes of ante-bellum figures, black and white. They were heavily criticized by some black artists when they first appeared because many of the figures are heavily caricatured, with thick lips and big bottoms, simpering slave simpletons and stage darkies. Walker’s art is not easy to absorb. It is a riveting, disturbing, and difficult show, at once hilarious and utterly repulsive. It is quite beautiful as well, and one of the most successful attempts to use art to deal with historical subjects that I have seen.

I will confess that when I first saw reviews of Walker’s art I did not “get it.” Yes, I thought, Gone with the Wind did not get it right as an accurate depiction of the ante-bellum South, but simply attacking racist stereotypes was something of beating a dead horse. Who doesn’t know that slavery was a horror show and a slaughter bench? (Certainly no one who has written about it seriously in the past half-century.) The challenging question is how to try to accurately depict the world of slavery either as a locus of paternalism or resistance or what have you, that doesn’t fall into its own stereotypes.

But the brilliance of Walker’s presentation, which not only relies on silhouettes but a whole panoply of 19th and early 20th century American forms and modes of representation she uses (the heroic mural, the cyclorama, silent films, and Uncle Remus type folk legends) to retell the story of slavery as America’s original sin through the stereotypes in engendered. Rape is one of her main metaphors; the rape of Africa and Africans, masters raping slave women and men, slaves raping one another. In one instance, a male slave is raped and impregnated by a cotton boll inserted into his rectum. The act of fellatio is seen as supreme act of submission, as American as apple pie, and once again every possible combination of blow job is imagined, children and adults, men and women, slaves and masters, all engaging in an elaborate ritual of degradation. All of this is accompanied by every possible bodily emission dripping from every orifice, an unholy Mississippi of blood, sweat, tears, semen, shit, menstrual flow and who knows what else. It is not an easy show to look at, but it is equally difficult to turn away.

What does it all mean? I am not sure, but some level it surely is a commentary on the complexity, the density, and inherent chaos and instability of American race relations. White power and black powerlessness creates a world is which everyone is damaged, where in the end you can’t tell if you are doing the screwing or being screwed, which no one, including the whites, could leave even if they wanted to, a crazy Dadaist version of Hegel’s master and slave dialectic. But the images are so over the top, what comes across from Walker’s exhibit in the end is, along with anger and the cries of the oppressed, a sense of transformative playfulness, of the gallows humor that makes America great. Or something. However you interpret it, don’t miss Kara Walker’s “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.”

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