If Kara Walker were white and male, her work might fit comfortably under the “bad boy” rubric, that impudent mix of outrage and attitude so beloved by collectors. But she’s African-American, a woman artist focusing on race and gender, who’s content to pour gasoline on both and set them on fire. She knows how to push your buttons.
That she does with her latest effort, “A Subtlety or The Marvelous Sugar Baby,” a public artwork cosponsored by the developer converting the site of Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar Factory into condos. While the Subtlety refers to the sugar sculptures that once adorned the tables of the powerful as displays of their wealth, the piece presides over the dark interior of the defunct facility as a meditation on the sweet substance’s role in the 19th-century slave trade.
Set beneath a huge skylight, it is an awesome sight: the body of a monumental female sphinx covered in sugar, rising some 30 feet high. Attended by a retinue of life-size boys cast in molasses, she’s surmounted by the kerchiefed head of a stereotypical mammy. Her back end tails off into a gigantic booty, upturned to present her vagina in a provocative pose that dwarfs visitors. Walker’s Molotov cocktail of racial and female caricature lands with its usual effect, only here the explosion is measured in kilotons.
More than slavery, the process of transforming a dark brown substance into a whiter, presumably purer variant seems to be the point here, a metaphor for the sticky nature of race relations. Yet for all its impact, the work’s message gets lost in its own grandeur: It’s less of a subtlety in the title’s ironic sense and more like the real thing.—Howard Halle