Kara Walker will be difficult. This gets whispered to you by enough people in the art world and you start to believe it: She's humorless!
Intimidating! David Mamet intimidating!
And this week, before the Thursday opening of “Kara Walker: Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!” at the Art Institute of Chicago, well, why not believe this?
Maybe you'd be cranky too if your (small) show opened a day after a (huge) Picasso exhibit at the same museum. And then there's her work, not exactly known for lightheartedness or passivity. Almost two decades ago, she became an overnight sensation while attending the Rhode Island School of Design; she was invited to a group exhibition in New York and showed a 13-by-50 foot mural with the playful, uneasy, antiquarian title: “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.” Even more striking was the work: life-size silhouettes, cut from black paper, of slave caricatures and antebellum gentility, a narrative full of violence and transgression.
This became her signature: ambitious, conflicting panoramas about race, wielding a nostalgic, old-timey medium like a sword.
She landed on a Time magazine list of the 100 most influential people in the world, earned a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and became a magnet for old-guard black artists who felt she was disrespectful. Her work became a rebuke to polite discussions about race and suggested an America, as New Yorker critic Hilton Als wrote, that's “a freak show that is impossible to watch, let alone understand.”
Susanne Ghez, longtime director of the Renaissance Society contemporary art museum on the University of Chicago campus — which organized Walker's first solo show, in 1997 — remembers.
“Kara was just out of school, and the work was so raw and confrontational. No one knew her yet really, but she was catching a lot of criticism from within the black community about her images, and was pretty shaken by it.”
By the end of 1997, Walker responded to those who said her use of racial stereotypes was offensive and counterproductive: She made watercolors, more than five dozen, for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, with messages: “What you want: negative images of white people, positive images of blacks.”
The point is, when meeting an artist with a history that heavy — brace yourself.
She arrives with her teenage daughter in tow.
“Why don't you explore the Modern Wing?” she says, and her daughter leaves us alone in a small gallery on the second floor at the back of the Modern Wing, surrounded by Walker's familiar cutouts.
Walker drops her bag and looks around and sighs.
I ask if she's happy with her show. She replies in the quiet, halting stammer of a distracted intellectual, more in tune with Woody Allen than David Mamet.
“I'm working on happy,” she says. “You can't ask me to be happy. Everything I do, I understand better what I do each time. Every artist I know, they're like this. But it could be chemical! It's not done, either. I mean, it's done; it's done for now, but the narrative, it's fresh for me. One (show) is not going to do it! I haven't had any feedback yet, so I don't know how much of what I am trying to do is still in my head. Are you following? If no, no is helpful!”
Kara Walker is … fun?
Asked if she's met anyone with a tattoo of her silhouettes, she says “several” and jokes about royalties. Asked if she's seen “Django Unchained” — what with her use of the antebellum South — her eyes light up. “I have! I enjoyed it! Tarantino is playing with pastiche, and it's moviemaking. He never lets you forget. As a child, I was subjected to a lot of spaghetti Westerns and hated them. I wanted the Indians to win — or just not be so sad! So it's nice to have a badass black hero, though I left telling a friend that I wished Django had been a women. I've got “Django” action figures, actually.”
But asked to explain her show, Woody returns.
“That would, ah, that would defeat the purpose,” she says. “That's where the art takes over. I would explain, but there is something wrong with explaining pictures. But … OK … there is this ever-present race war, and some don't know that it's happening, and others seem convinced it's not happening enough, so what you see are pockets of moments here, scenarios, preludes to the big event.”
So basically, this is like “The Lord of the Rings,” I say.
“Exactly!” she laughs. “Thank you! But, no, what I did 20 years ago, that was like the opening chapter.”
Indeed, at first “Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!” shares a lot with Walker's best-known work: silhouettes, large graphite drawings, a wall of mixed-media watercolors, elegant figures in hoop skirts, broad caricatures of black children. But slowly, curiously, a narrative somewhat reveals itself: Shotguns are pointing into groins; Confederate soldiers are tended to by naked, Afroed black women; a somber painting of war has a round, Looney Tunes-esque bomb inserted in the action; charred ruins come with the caption: “What will you do when they come to take your guns?”
Though the title of the exhibit comes from early black nationalist Marcus Garvey — by way of Barack Obama, who references it in “Dreams From My Father” (which Walker had been listening to on cassette, and liked the way the phrase felt “vague, disembodied and unexplained,” when applied to the show) — the larger source is “The Turner Diaries,” a paranoid, racist novel from the 1970s that ends in an apocalyptic race war.
The quotes in the show are pulled from the book, though the show itself is an attempt at a kind of counternarrative, “a little extrapolation,” says Walker, who wants to do several shows addressing the book.
“It's this seminal mythology seen as basis for so many white supremacist talking points,” she says, “and I am interested in mythology — particularly in the personal sense, the stories we tell ourselves to justify who we are and what we believe.”
The show also feels like a transitional moment for Walker, who, though only 43, has already had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York. Her 2006 “After the Deluge” show at New York's Museum of Metropolitan Art gathered its power as a commentary on the outcome of Hurricane Katrina, but after rooting so much of her art in the South, then early 20th century America, “Rise Up” feels expansive, closer to the zeitgeist.
The Art Institute was expecting Walker's traditional white-walled gallery. They got a deep slate gray. And as for the silhouettes, only two in the show are black, the rest are white. Walker says this is partly a technical thing involving pencil fineness, then adds that a familiarity was creeping in, and she was resisting.
Asked why she cuts out her silhouettes and plasters them directly on the gallery walls — why not just frame them — she grins and says, “I did a few (framed silhouettes) at (Rhode Island School of Design), but the cutting-out, which I don't have to do, you're right, started as a rejection of structures, a reaction against the exclusivity of the European (art) model, which I was not entirely invited into. You would hear, and I still hear from young black art students, ‘But you're black. Can't you tell us something about your experience being black?' And that comes from all quarters — the black arts movement, white instructors. It's a funny double bind. So, I was cutting myself away from it.”
She laughs often.
Walker grew up in Stockton, Calif., the daughter of an artist; her father was chairman of the art department at University of the Pacific. Her first art memories, she says, are watching her father paint in their garage, “where art happened, not where cars lived.” Asked if she was inspired by Charles Schulz — her earliest stabs at art were “Peanuts”-inspired comic strips — she says she keeps “an actual list of the white men in my life, Schulz, Mark Twain, Melville ... " She mentions dog-eared "Doonesbury" books.
This seems the ideal moment to ask about a silhouette at the edge of her show, a character with hair in round buns (or Mickey Mouse ears) with raised middle fingers, taunting.
Walker said the character was "a voice of unreason, created out of giddiness."
I ask her, as sad and violent as her art is, does anyone ever notice, you know, that sense of humor?
"Some," she replies brightly. "Some see it as funny, sometimes, because it is funny, sometimes." She smiles sadly, as if to say, as seriously as she takes her work, it would be nice to hear an inappropriate cackle every once in a while.
Last year during the Whitney Biennial, she performed with a band led by pianist Jason Moran. She called her stage persona “Karaoke Walkrrr” and sang to the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar. "She relishes the moment even now, rushing through the lyrics in a whisper: "Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields/ Sold in a market down in New Orleans ... "
Anyone sing along, I ask.
"No, no!" she laughs. "My studio assistant, in the back. She said, ‘We tried to sing along, but we got shushed!'"
A pair of tourists stop and huddle at the nylon strap strung across the gallery entrance. Her show's not open yet. It's unclear if they know who she is or if she just looks like someone important. Walker looks toward them, turns back and finishes her thought:
“That's the thing,” she says. “It feels like a game, this work I do. It is totally heartfelt, and I love the sticky terrain, the straight-up cartoons, how the irrepressible and icky rise to the surface. But I am not just trying to call forth bugaboos and demons for the sake of it, for fun. I'm doing it because there is something more, something I'm still trying to process myself."