"Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love"

The chickens come home to roost in Kara Walker's survey.

Installation view

Installation view

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

What do you say about an artist you can’t really criticize because doing so exposes your own squeamishness and contradictory views about race? That, I suppose, is the beauty of Kara Walker’s work, from a strategic standpoint anyway: It’s virtually criticproof. As for visual rewards, Walker’s multimedia depictions of an antebellum Grand Guignol of sexual violence and abjection certainly make ugly verities alluring. Still, I can’t say I’ve ever been a real fan of the artist, and this survey at the Whitney does little to change my mind. Walker may be important, but her work has always struck me as being more of an excursion into her personal hang-ups than an exorcism of the country’s racial psychosis. Her cotillion of horrors—the pickaninnies trailing feces, the Negroes choking on massa’s cock—grabs you by the throat, but to what end? As an object lesson in history, or as a form of elitist titillation? I’ll leave it to others to enjoy Walker’s visual equivalent of erotic asphyxiation, but as Samuel Goldwyn once remarked, include me out.

The problem is that Walker isn’t some outsider speaking truth to power; she’s an official artist, leveraging her privileged status to take liberties with our racial sensitivities while revealing a hint of self-loathing beneath her narcissism. Walker’s signature murals, created in the style of 18th-century silhouettes, contrast the stark binary of her medium—black paper, white wall—with the moral ambiguities rendered therein. Although there’s no doubting who actually rules her plantation hell, slaves are often seen as willing accomplices in their own abasement, while their masters diminish themselves in kind. It’s a neat trick, though this graywash of complicity is colored by self-congratulation: not only the artist’s, but the audience’s as well. A trip through her feel-bad world makes you feel good about yourself.

That Walker knows this and is contemptuous of it can be surmised by a moment in her video opus from 2005, 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, A Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker. A silent shadow-puppet play as Oscar Micheaux might have filmed it, the piece is divided into intertitled segments, including, we find bess a comely negress taking her master’s likeness, in which the eponymous character deftly snips a profile of her unseen owner. As she finishes, a dialogue card pops up bearing the approbation, good job bess. Here, Walker draws a rather outrageous parallel—that life as a famous artist is just like being a slave—in order to star in her own institutional critique.

This isn’t the only instance where Walker confuses self-pity for righteous indignation. Her 1997 suite of works on paper Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk? is essentially a petulant outburst, a sneering put-down of “positive” black images occasioned by criticism of her by older African-American artists who suggested that her use of racist imagery was opportunistic. Subsequent calls for a boycott of her work were unfortunate, but it’s not like her detractors lacked a point. Trafficking in negative stereotypes is dicey for anyone, but perhaps more so for African-Americans caricaturing their own, as Dave Chappelle evidently concluded. Of course, he operates in the realm of popular entertainment, where the sound of whites laughing in the wrong places is plainly audible. Walker, on the other hand, is cosseted by an art world in which everything is relative or fodder for “discourse,” and pantomimes of honesty can pass for the real deal.

Walker’s foundation myth is that as a 13-year-old, the artist, whose father was a professor of painting, moved from an integrated California suburb to the Atlanta of the ’80s, where her eyes were opened to the truth about race relations. No doubt it made an impression even as she lived in comfortable circumstances, but what she went through sounds mild compared to the experience of someone like the great David Hammons, 26 years her senior. Still wary from years of being rejected by the art world, Hammons is notoriously selective about whom he will show with, yet his work evinces an understanding of the human condition that Walker’s sorely lacks. His installation several years back—in which he emptied the cavernous Ace Gallery, plunged it into pitch blackness and offered viewers tiny flashlights with which to grope their way through the dark—said more about the debilitating effects of racism than any of Walker’s historical signifiers. Clouded by a rage that seems unearned, held captive by self-regard, Walker’s work is far less free than she imagines.

Whitney Museum of American Art, through Feb 3