Confronting artist Kara Walker

Artist's highly charged works are meant to provoke -- but she wouldn't mind if they provoked a laugh every now and then

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Kara Walker

Artist Kara Walker with her work at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune / February 19, 2013)

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!

Confrontational!

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.”

Anyway.

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.

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