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Kara Walker at the Modern: The Shadow of Malice


by Manuel Mendoza 16 Jul 2008

Kara Walker, Endless Conundrum, An African Anonymous Adverturess , 2001, on paper, Collection Walker Art Center, T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2002 Guest blogger Brad Ford Smith is a Dallas artist and art conservationist. For another artist’s take on the Kara Walker exhibit, check out Matthew Bourbon’s commentary for KERA radio in Art&Seek’s feature content area. […]

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Kara Walker, Endless Conundrum, An African Anonymous Adverturess , 2001, on paper, Collection Walker Art Center, T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2002

Guest blogger Brad Ford Smith is a Dallas artist and art conservationist. For another artist’s take on the Kara Walker exhibit, check out Matthew Bourbon’s commentary for KERA radio in Art&Seek’s feature content area.

Kara Walker uses paper silhouettes, shadow puppets and overhead projectors to recreate a stereotypical Antebellum South, where masters and slaves go about doing unpleasant things. But that is just the surface of a world that Walker describes as “two parts research and one part paranoid hysteria.”

Know before you go. This show is not for children or persons of a sensitive nature. To put it in movie terms, this show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is rated R for violence, sex, alcohol abuse and language, pretty much everything on the R-rated list. In fact, if you could give an X rating to shadows and paper dolls, then this show would get one. And yes, you will see paper silhouettes of genitalia, and they will not be presented in a pleasant way.

So why would I, a person who avoids violent movies and TV news, be so responsive to Kara Walker’s artwork? She unplugs my normal mode of thinking. She causes me to review old answers from new angles. She makes me physically need to ask other people about their responses. And there is also that continuous mystery: Sometimes when you see a retrospective exhibition, you come out feeling like you are now “the expert” on that artist. But with Kara Walker’s exhibit, I came out having experienced a lot of her artwork, but feeling less sure about who Kara Walker actually is.

Kara Walker uses subjects that are hot-button political topics such as racism, slavery and violent crimes, but she does not offer any direct connections or solutions. Instead what we see, especially in the small works on paper, is one person’s exploration of tragedy.

The installations and videos are overwhelming in size and in graphic portrayal. They are like walking through the pages of a life-size graphic novel. Each installation tells a story that has been reduced to a simplistic graphic representation that still maintains the ability to inspire a surprising variety of interpretations.

I am sure the museum guards are filling up their little note pads with overheard comments such as this response to the video installation Cotton King:

Teenage boy – Mom, you don’t want to go in there.
Mom – Why not?
Teenage boy – It’s REALLY messed up.

This also illustrates an important point. This exhibit incorporates a lot of text. Kara Walker uses text in about half of the artwork on exhibit, the title cards can run as long as 400 words and the Modern also provides a free 13-page booklet. I recommend you bring your reading glasses. You should also see the show twice. The first time all the reading and imagery will leave you overloaded. So spend some time in the café with a glass of wine and a few friends. Then walk through the exhibit again. This time you will know what to expect and that will allow you to see the artwork in a new way and on a different level. This will also give you the opportunity to see other people respond to the artwork.

For more information on Kara Walker, I highly recommend watching the PBS documentary, Art 21, Season 2. The Modern has a free podcast available through their website and on iTunes. One last source is live straight from the mouth of the artist, which will happen live and in person at the Modern on September 23.

To sum it up, I am very proud of the Modern for hosting this exhibition. The fact that this concentration of Kara Walker’s artwork is being exhibited outside of the NYC-LA-Chicago circuit, and that the Modern has the daring to present it, is amazing.

We should all send the Modern an e-mail (info@themodern.org) of support right now because I suspect that they are at this very moment receiving heated phone calls and letters of complaint from those who disagree.

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  • Nice summary of the good aspects of Kara Walker’s art! As you suggested above, I think she uses art the same way AR Ammons uses poetry: ” to get at “the point reason couldn’t, the point delivered below / the level of argument, straight into the fat / of feeling.”

    I think the people who get upset over her work are really more angry at the way the art world treats Black artists and the manner in which African-American history is treated (or ignored) in the US. Unfortunately, that sensible outrage gets redirected at Kara Walker, who is really taking up some of the same issues but expressing them using a subtle — even insidious — method.