The art is not meant to be pretty. It’s there to make you think, to be horrified and even turned off. Kara Walker’s tragically seductive silhouettes in her exhibition at the Whitney American Museum of Art depict images of slavery, of desperation and fighting back. “It’s this lure to look at things that are hard to look at,” Walker said about her work. The show, My Compliment, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, runs until Feb. 3, 2008 and features dozens of her sketches, three videos, and large rooms with panorama scenes done in black cut-outs.
The first piece the visitor is confronted with is Gone, an Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. If you find this display too lewd or over the top, I suggest turning around and walking right out, because it doesn’t change. Most of Walker’s images force the viewer to be uncomfortable. Images of boys floating by the support of a blown up phallus, slave girls performing fellatio on white men, butchered bodies and even a dancing child spewing excrement, are seen in Walkers work. In Mistress Demand a Swift and Dramatic Empathetic Reaction Which We Obliged Her, a young black girl pushes a machete through the breast of a bound “mistress” while a slave stands to the left of her, his head contained in a strange cage type device and his arms shackles.
Walker does something that most modern artists fail to convey—feeling. Whether you are turned off, saddened, amused or educated, her silhouettes evoke some emotion. Even her loosely done Negress Notes, a series of 64 framed sketches, cause a stir. One shows a slave girl suspended between two men, performing fellatio on the father while his son sodomizes her. The simple watercolor and pen drawing induces disgust for the actions of the men but not tenderness for the girl. This example can also serve as an allegory to the American society’s repulsion at what happened to African slaves and the mild reactions we have today.
In a circular room Walker shows a young white boy wearing a soldier’s cap copulating with an older black girl with bouncing pigtails. The girl drops her watermelon slice and it falls toward a black man who watches as a baby is being born like a chick from another watermelon. Two white women peak at him through a keyhole in a door that blends into his body. On one part of the wall slaves try to escape through a wagon filled with straw, but on the other side they can’t. The circular room brings you around and around the issue, like Walker’s work, which takes slavery and human v. human to the extreme.
There are a lot of people who don’t like Kara Walker’s work. When she won the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Achievement Award she was criticized harshly and called “undeserving.” So, she responded by doing more art.
But, people also love Kara Walker’s vision and this is a sign that something is moving. Despite the repetition of her theme, it is apparent that this woman has something to say and has done an amazing job telling it. The future for this artist remains exciting and the direction of her creativity is unknown. And she wrote on one of the drawings, “And what does this imply? That ARTS function to Black people is to verify the TRUTH all the time and to express collective experience.” – L. Covington
Think of your sweetest, most tragic romance. Got it? Now start putting music to it. Probably you have The Cure somewhere in there and maybe a song by The Knife or Portishead and something hard like PJ Harvey. But what happens when one woman can give you the entirety of your relationship in a song, in a show?
This is exactly what Khaela Maricich of The Blow did last Friday at the Blender Theater in Manhattan. Not only did she sing most of her album Paper Television, but she gave a 12 step program for how to deal with love, heartbreak, loneliness and that burning desire to have something that you can’t—or more, someone who won’t have you.
The first step was to yell at an inanimate object, like a plastic bottle. She sang, “Hey Boy” in which the chorus repeats, “Hey Boy. Why you didn’t call me?” Maricich molded the bottle and went from desperate wanting to sad rejection with songs “Babay (Eat A Critter, Feel Its Wrath)” and “Hock It.” Each song was accompanied by a robot-like dance and the audience never felt the absence of other band members. The tunes were electronic and chaotic, but the words clever and straight to the heart.
At one point Maricich began to sing about the hopeful side of love with her songs, “Pardon Me” and “Parentheses.” She finished up with a story bout picking up a girl and being distraught that she had been dismissed. Then, in a hopeful leap, she sang the response, “True Affection” which repeats the idea of “you were out of my league…” There are few shows that leave you wanting more, Maricich exhausted most of her songs and by the end there wasn’t anything left to give, just the feeling of having gotten over some horrible heartache and optimistic about the future. –Linnea Covington