Standing – quaking, actually – in front of Kara Walker’s stark silhouettes of exaggerated racial stereotypes and loaded racist imagery from the antebellum South is like being trapped in a nightmare. Scrawny Massas are violated by and violate Mandingos, Southern belles are ravished by and ravish maids and house boys, and penises of various, warped shapes and sizes are seized by and seize various, warped orifices, forming phantasmagoric tableaux that are as inherently shocking as they seem genuinely urgent.
In the Gen-X African-American’s interpretation of history-versus-reality in black-and-white America, her Stepin Fetchits, Scarlett O’Haras, and Aunt Jemimas are as nebulous as passing shadows but as recognizable as our own lovers and enemies and nearly as indelible.
A retrospective of her work that will come down soon at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love is scandalous, boring, illuminating, frustrating, and transcendent, sometimes all at the same time. Consisting primarily of Walker’s trademark paper cutouts, the exhibit – the first full-scale survey of the artist’s work, curated and organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (no relation) – also includes her paintings, watercolors, video animation, collages, and wall texts. Everything is as flat and raw as a lyric poet’s ramblings. Actually, some pieces are basically just words.
The bizarre mises-en-scene – the exhibit’s main components – unfold linearly across the Modern’s walls, teasing hungry viewers along via the suggestion of some sort of pregnant narrative. Like musical notes on staff paper, the images adhere to their own private logic, bunching up in places, dissipating in others, growing larger, shrinking. The extra set of legs sticking out of a lady’s ball gown, the slanting shacks and weeping willows, the surreal bodies conjoined by elongated penises and breasts – everything flows in and out of everything else, even when her pieces are separated by texts and empty wall space.
The anti-narrative is relentless. There’s no doubt that the artist is in control here and that viewers are just along for the ride, which is often problematic. You can look at only so many sloping breasts, curving penises, grossly distended bellies, blotches of excrement, and acts of violence and murder before a sort of fatigue sets in.
Walker’s work is highly idiosyncratic. Though it has historical correlatives – Sol LeWitt, graffiti, hieroglyphics -it’s wholly made up of what are evidently precise articulations of the ideas swirling around in the artist’s head, imbuing her work with a personality – and not all of it is offensive. Some of it is downright charming. Perverse but charming.
One of the most ridiculous, wonderful, tantalizing pieces is Walker’s film “8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara Walker,” whose climax features sex between two silhouetted characters manipulated by visible hands: a skeletal, goateed Massa and a bulging Mandingo type. Puppets behaving badly is always funny, and it is here.
As wittily appalling as Walker’s sticky situations is the deft hand she uses to shape them. What her characters are doing is just as riveting as how they look. Most of them wear tattered clothes that fray at the edges as if they were made of flames, and in her watercolors and sketches, she displays a late-19th-century political cartoonist’s sense of refined sloppiness, channeling the viewer’s focus to the content as opposed to just the form.
The recognizable aspects of her characters also hint at some sort of allegory. In her world, though, logic is what is illogical. Like a serious lyric poet or lyrical novelist – and not like a realist – Kara Walker takes a sideways approach to illuminating life’s vital truths. The artist, though, is always right. About what, no one but she is allowed to say.
My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love
Thru Sun, Oct 19, at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1300 Darnell St, FW. 817-738-9215.