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Homage and warning in William Christenberry's look at the Deep South

William Christenberry didn't have perfect sight — the result of a serious eye injury when he was a teen — but the Alabama-born artist possessed extraordinary insight.

His primary focus was the Deep South, a focus that can be explored in a retrospective at the Maryland Institute College of Art: "Laying-by Time: Revisiting the Works of William Christenberry." That revisiting unexpectedly took on an air of memorial when, shortly before the show opened, Christenberry died from complications of Alzheimer's at the age of 80.

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"I had hoped Bill would be involved with this exhibit, but when I first learned of his condition, it became clear that his work would speak on his behalf," says Kimberly Gladfelter Graham, the show's curator and a member of MICA's curatorial studies faculty. "I miss this wonderfully gracious, gentle man."

Although long based in Washington, where he taught at the Corcoran School of Art for 40 years, Christenberry returned regularly to Alabama to photograph modest structures in modest places. He painted or made sculptures of some of those images. He also framed found objects that seemed to have tales to tell.

An early encounter with a Klansman at a Tuscaloosa courthouse in 1960 left a lasting mark on the artist; he never forgot the sight of the eyes staring at him from behind slits of a hood. A couple of years later, Christenberry began work on what would come to be known as the Klan Room Tableau, a multimedia project that occupied him for much of his life.

"Bill just loved where he was from," says Sandra Deane Christenberry, the artist's Michigan-born wife of 49 years. "He didn't love the bad part, but he didn't shy away from dealing with it. He was a historian as well as an artist. I always felt he was very experimental in the way he dealt with his feelings about the South."

A portion of the Klan Room Tableau has been assembled for the MICA exhibit, located behind a curtain and a viewer discretion warning.

"Some students ask why this is here," Graham says, "or why we would show a white artist [addressing this subject]. But he was of a particular time, and he was haunted by his experience. Unfortunately, the material is even more relevant now, which is why it needs to be here."

Graham knew Christenberry well during her nearly decade-long tenure as director of the Washington commercial gallery Hemphill Fine Arts, which represented the artist.

"I miss this wonderfully gracious, gentle man," she says. "A lot of people have described him as being like a Methodist minister or a Sunday school teacher. There was something very patient about him. And his work has a great deal of patience and balance, which is what viewers are ultimately asked to bring to it."

Stepping into the Decker Gallery of the Fox Building on the MICA campus brings an almost visceral jolt from a large painting from 1963 of an African-American graveyard outside Stewart, Ala. — a very early work in Christenberry's career, before photography would become his best-known pursuit.

Created in bold strokes, the painting exudes compelling vitality. But, considering the violence in the South that year as the civil rights movement gained momentum, the painting takes on greater weight.

An adjacent wall holds two photographs of churches, separated by a poignant found object — a cross made of egg cartons, decorated with artificial flowers.

Graham devotes the next section of the exhibit to dwelling places and "people who make do with the little they might have." A particularly touching example is a well-worn little house that Christenberry photographed multiple times, including during winter — which makes it look even more run-down.

It seems abandoned, until you spot a paltry strand of Christmas lights hanging on the door and, in one poignant shot, the shadowy figure of a woman in the doorway, watching the artist as he watches her.

Although people usually are not in Christenberry's photos, the exhibit includes another striking example: "Lady Who Makes Egg Carton Flowers, Hale County, Alabama, 1983."

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You can imagine a Truman Capote-worthy story being spun from the little details in this single digital print — the woman's placid-proud face and crossed arms; the Winn-Dixie bag at her feet on the weathered wooden porch; the fly swatter hanging from a vintage advertising thermometer on the cinderblock wall behind her.

The passage of time is the common theme of the next section of the exhibit. Christenberry's interest in that subject is nowhere more compellingly revealed than in his "Bar-B-Q-Inn Series."

Framed in neat rows are 16 photos, some taken on a Brownie camera, of a humble commercial building in Greensboro, Ala., starting in the early 1960s when the structure housed Woods Radio-TV Service. The remaining shots trace the fate of the building into the early 1990s; the last photo shows just a vacant lot.

Note the street sign that can be seen next to the crumbling property in later photos: Martin Luther King Dr. To see that name attached to such a desolate drive adds an extra layer of resonance to the whole series.

Many of the photos in this exhibit have a similar composition and similar lighting. There's a reason.

"Bill delivered papers as a boy," Graham says, "and the bundles were tied with wire then. One day, a wire snapped and hit his eye. He was very self-conscious about how the injury affected his focus. Many of his photographs use the same horizon line and were shot between 10 a.m. and noon. He knew he could rely on a certain amount of light then."

Another portion of the exhibit contains ink drawings that seem to come from another artist entirely and, among a grouping of found objects, a hand-painted sign for Ebenezer Church that could not be more evocative of faith and need.

Finally, the Klan Room Tableau, viewable from behind a rope and bathed in the eerie light of a neon cross.

"It always created some sort of a storm," Sandra Christenberry says. "But Bill didn't create it because of its attention-getting aspects. Lots of times, there was controversy because people who had not seen it jumped to the wrong conclusions. Bill wanted everybody to look at his work in its totality, not just concentrate on one thing."

A superficial look at the scene, dotted with dozens of dolls wearing the Klan's signature satin robes and hoods, might suggest glorification.

"You're faced with this thing that is very theatrical, even seductive," Graham says. "But [Christenberry is] showing us how dangerous that seductiveness can be."

Closer inspection reveals that some dolls have pins stuck in them. Others lie in coffins. One group is confined to a jail.

Beneath the Klan outfits are GI Joe Action Figures, Christenberry's way of emphasizing that there is "an army of evil," Graham says, "but belittling them simulatenously. This [installation was] his way of exorcising his experience with the Klan, and part of the exorcism is that he brualtizes the dolls."

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All of this makes for an unsettling experience. But it opens a window into a man trying to come to terms with the most troubling side of the world he came from and never really left behind. The rest of the MICA exhibit tellingly fleshes out this portrait of a sensitive and trenchant artist.

"I knew as soon as I met Bill that he was extraordinary," Sandra Christenberry says. "He was a pretty gentle man. He didn't like a lot of brouhaha. He was soft-spoken. He didn't swear. He was a great dad, a great husband and a great friend. Bill Christenberry was a good man."

If you go

"Laying-by Time: Revisiting the Works of William Christenberry" runs through March 12 in the Decker Gallery of the Fox Building, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), 1301 W. Mount Royal Ave. (closed Jan 1, 2, 7, 8, 14, 15). Call 410-225-2300, or go to mica.edu.

Related events include: "An Intimate Window: Gallery Walk & Talk with Sandy Christenberry" noon Feb. 22 at Decker Gallery; "Generating Conversations Against a Backdrop of Contemporary Concerns," 7 p.m. Feb. at Falvey Hall, Brown Center, 1301 W. Mount Royal Ave.

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