Kara Walker, “Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might Be Guilty of Something),” cut paper on canvas, 2017 (Photo: © Kara Walker / Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York)
Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
530 West 22nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Saturday through October 15, free
In the summer of 2014, California-born, New York City–based multidisciplinary artist Kara Walker entered the public consciousness in a big way with “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant,” her massive white-sugar sculpture of a Sphinx-like “mammy” in the Domino Sugar Refining Plant, shortly before the factory was torn down. While the piece worked magnificently on many levels, including artistically, historically, and politically, many visitors entertained themselves by taking selfies and posting photos in which they made fun of various parts of the figure’s body, leading Walker to question the ways people, especially of different races, look at and experience such work. In fact, throughout her career, her oeuvre has been misunderstood and/or taken at face value; her cut-out silhouettes in particular can seem adorable and playful until one zeroes in on their harrowing portraits of Civil War–era rape, violence, child abuse, and more perpetrated by white plantation owners and their families on black slaves. Walker attempts to preempt any such critical or popular misunderstandings or misreadings in her major follow-up exhibition, essentially titled, “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!,” a timely collection of new paintings, drawings, and collages that closely examine the state of race relations from slavery to the present time, when the president of the United States has declared that some white supremacists are “very fine people,” the media is under attack, and the country is arguing over patriotism and flags that represent different things to different ethnicities.
Kara Walker, “Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” Sumi ink and collage on paper, 2017 (Photo: © Kara Walker / Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York)
In fact, Donald Trump makes an appearance in the centerpiece of the new exhibit, Walker’s grand “Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” a reimagining of James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels,” complete with depictions of James Brown, a Confederate soldier, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Trayvon Martin, a mummy, black stereotypes, and a wilting flag. Flags also appear in the watercolors “Rebel Flag (with Ghosts)” and “Rebel Flag (with Bows)” and “Libertine Alighting the World,” with a partially undressed, flaming Lady Liberty, a mixed-race couple, and a black female centurion burning the Confederate flag, and “U.S.A. Idioms,” with characters in a winding tree, a stump and a freshly dug grave below. Graves play a role as well in “The (Private) Memorial Garden of Grandison Harris” and “Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit),” death ever present. But some semblance of life emerges in the cut-paper, black-and-white “Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might Be Guilty of Something),” with images of eggs and birth alongside snakes and demons.
Kara Walker, “Paradox of the Negro Burial Ground,” oil stick, collage, and mixed media on paper, 2017 (Photo: © Kara Walker / Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York)
Walker takes on colonialism in the oil-stick “Brand X (Slave Market Painting),” references classical paintings of Judith holding the head of Holofernes in “Scraps,” takes a shot at French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme and colonialism in “A Piece of Furniture for Jean Leon Gerome,” and shows a black child proudly raising his left fist in the air, his right hand on his heart, in “A Spectacle,” paying no attention to the white man with the lasso near him. This is heavy stuff that demands extended attention, reveling in not only the allegorical and true-to-life scenes but also the majestic skill displayed by Walker, who takes a giant step with her use of paint, oil stick, and cut-outs.
The official press release was prepared for all kinds of reactions, from critics and the public:
“Collectors of Fine Art will Flock to see the latest Kara Walker offerings, and what is she offering but the Finest Selection of artworks by an African-American Living Woman Artist this side of the Mississippi. Modest collectors will find her prices reasonable, those of a heartier disposition will recognize Bargains! Scholars will study and debate the Historical Value and Intellectual Merits of Miss Walker’s Diversionary Tactics. Art Historians will wonder whether the work represents a Departure or a Continuum. Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media. Parents will cover the eyes of innocent children. School Teachers will reexamine their art history curricula. Prestigious Academic Societies will withdraw their support, former husbands and former lovers will recoil in abject terror. Critics will shake their heads in bemused silence. Gallery Directors will wring their hands at the sight of throngs of the gallery-curious flooding the pavement outside. The Final President of the United States will visibly wince. Empires will fall, although which ones, only time will tell.”
Kara Walker, “Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit),” triptych, oil stick and Sumi ink on paper collaged on linen, 2017 (Photo: © Kara Walker / Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York)
Meanwhile, in her artist’s statement, Walker makes her purpose very clear:
“I don’t really feel the need to write a statement about a painting show. I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point. But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.’ Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche. It’s too much, and I write this knowing full well that my right, my capacity to live in this Godforsaken country as a (proudly) raced and (urgently) gendered person is under threat by random groups of white (male) supremacist goons who flaunt a kind of patched together notion of race purity with flags and torches and impressive displays of perpetrator-as-victim sociopathy. I roll my eyes, fold my arms and wait. How many ways can a person say racism is the real bread and butter of our American mythology, and in how many ways will the racists among our countrymen act out their Turner Diaries race war fantasy combination Nazi Germany and Antebellum South — states which, incidentally, lost the wars they started, and always will, precisely because there is no way those white racisms can survive the earth without the rest of us types upholding humanity’s best, keeping the motor running on civilization, being good, and preserving nature and all the stuff worth working and living for?”
Kara Walker, “Alive, not Dead,” Sumi ink and collage on paper, 2017 (Photo: © Kara Walker / Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York)
Walker’s show at Sikkema Jenkins is bold and in-your-face, daring viewers to feel deeply no matter what part of the political spectrum they find themselves on. It’s both threatening and thrilling, offering little comfort as it lays bare the ills of contemporary society in fearless ways. When I visited the show on a crowded Saturday afternoon, there were a lot of people, black, white, and brown, taking photos, but nobody posing stupidly or making fun of the artwork. Does that mean we have made progress since “A Subtlety”? Just roll your eyes, fold your arms, and wait.