Kara Walker and the New History Painting
Grandison Harris is an obscure figure in American history, one who evades the titles of hero, villain, or victim. First as a slave, then as an employed freedman of the Georgia Medical College, Harris was a resurrection man—a grave robber. As a slave he was granted the rare and illegal privilege of literacy (deemed necessary by the college’s faculty for him to read death announcements and discover gravesites), and as a freedman used that literacy to ascend to a short-lived post as town judge and longer-lived position of influence in his community. Until his retirement in 1913, Harris continued to dig up corpses, often those of black men and women, an activity that earned him suspicion in the very community into which he had ascended.
On ViewSikkema Jenkins & Co.
September 7 – October 14, 2017
Harris is a fitting subject for Kara Walker, whose career dredges up the rotting corpses of history rather than tell neat tales or grant reassurances. Her offering this fall, “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present the most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!...,” (the title is too long to reproduce in full) presents a set of new and urgently drawn canvases and works on paper. Among them, The (Private) Memorial Garden of Grandison Harris (2017), tackles that enigmatic figure with the tenderness and repulsion we’ve come to expect from Walker. Overseen by a white silhouette in tattered clothes, sparingly modeled in streaks of grey, Harris appears in paper cutout spanning the join between the two linen canvases that form the diptych of the large collage. Slouched against him is the corpse of a black woman, and Harris appears to fondle her bare breasts as he drags her from the rhomboid silhouette that delineates her empty grave. What Walker offers us in this confused fall is a genre of art we may not be so accustomed to seeing: history painting.
History painting was, from the 17th to 19th centuries, considered the highest vocation of art, superior to the lesser forms of landscape and portraiture. History, of course, was both real and imagined: the battles of empires, the myths of antiquity, biblical tales. This was a field of production dominated by harsh strictures over subject matter, style, and the conditions of production. The genre fell out of style in the late 19th Century when the givens of European societies were cast into doubt after the upheaval of the industrial revolution, and artists began the project of self-criticism of the norms and standards of their field, a project we know today as Modernism. It was a project of interrogating all those formal and social strictures—the realism of the picture plane, the elevation of subjects—so that they might be loosened or discarded, a project that may have appeared complete in the later 20th century when “the end of history” was loudly proclaimed, when the so-called grand narratives that the modernists both owed their existence to and ruthlessly interrogated were declared crumbled and gone.
But today’s art world has its strictures just the same, albeit in new forms. The stories that reign in the present are written not back into time but onto space and skin; they operate at the level of identity. Walker knows this all too well. When, in the weeks preceding her show at Sikkema Jenkins, Walker wrote in an artist’s statement that she is “tired, true, of being a featured member of [her] racial group and/or gender niche,” she was met with immediate backlash for her refusal to take a stand. Her critics assailed her for creating work that responds to issues of race and gender, but denying their interpretation as political signposts. What these critics misunderstood is that they are of course free to interpret her work however they like, even to position it as a rallying point. But Walker herself, much like the characters she depicts, does not wish to be made into a political hero. To position Walker’s art as a political statement would rob it of its rich complexity and uncomfortable contradictions. Her plea to be judged as what she is—an artist—revealed the tragic difficulty of such a thing for a talented artist who happened to be born in dark skin and a female body. We may have done away with that old hierarchy of subject matter and prescription of form, but art today is dominated by a complex rubric of who can say what and how those statements might be received.
In hindsight, Walker has always been a history painter. The sprawling scenes of the brutality of slavery, presented in silhouette, were both a revelation and redaction of history, like the black ink drawn over sensitive lines in intelligence documents. The silhouettes remain here, but rather than the central focus, they become stage setting and counterpoint to ghastly figures rendered in urgent strokes of ink. This new work is the unredacted file: names will be named.
Unlike the great history painting of Europe, in which saints and sinners were neatly distinguished, tragedy and triumph clear, and moral lessons easily taught, Walker’s history is messy and unaccommodating. Her pictures make no effort to redeem the maligned black body (a tendency for which she has drawn fire throughout her career). Instead, she plunges it further into imaginary perversion and despair.
Buttressing her status as history painter are the citation-rich titles: a wry nod to French academic painter and orientalist Jean-Léon Gérôme, a play on the many paintings of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and the similarly popular painterly subject, The Slaughter of the Innocents (Giotto, Bruegel, Tintoretto, Rubens). Walker is staking her claim in the canon.
In her take on Eugène Delacroix’s famous depiction of the fiery suicide of mythic Assyrian king Sardanapalus (who, in the face of military defeat, burned himself alive with his entire court on a funeral pyre), The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (After Delacroix, Keinholz) (2017), Walker presents a historical revenge fantasy: a scene organized around a splayed and bound white figure —Sardanapalus assaulted by his victims as they move in concert to certain death. A black man wearing a do-rag smokes languidly in the lower corner, unconcerned with his fate, while an ascending black woman in 18th century dress meets the gates of heaven by thrusting a knife into the gut of Saint Peter. Elsewhere, a white man whispers in the ear of a black figure in a hoodie as he guides a dagger toward the bare torso of a prostrate slave. Violence here is not a thing inflicted by one on the other, but a condition of being. Victims and perpetrators are equally deformed.
Walker’s history painting refuses also to offer a narrative to which we might hitch any understanding. Past and present are synchronous and coplanar. Scenes are shared by slaves, klansmen and contemporary riot police. A jazz-age Salome offers the head of a contemporary John the Baptist; Fredrick Douglas abuts a black power salute. History isn’t a flowing river: it’s a stinking swamp—a mess of body fluids and parts and organs and cruelty and failure.
It would be easy to read this show—and Walker’s oeuvre—as a catalog of horrors. But any honest student of history already has this catalog on their shelf. Here, even more than she has in the past, Walker rips that ghastly catalog to pieces and lets the scraps fall where they may, eschewing the more palatable narratives of progress and victimology for a mess of festering wounds. Walker’s new history painting is an indictment of history itself: scattering some four centuries anxiously across flat planes, gesturing toward neither heaven nor hell.
The problem with this approach is that it tends toward cynicism and despair; it suggests erroneously that in the movement of history there is no progress or regress, no possibility of redemption. But despair is better than false promises, spurious claims about the victory and resolution of emancipation or the Civil Rights movement, or rallying to the empty slogan of RESIST! The present offers no suture for these wounds, and Walker denies us any anaesthetic balm. Hers is a more difficult truth than performative resistance and reassurance, but one desperate for articulation. To be sure, a politics of emancipation needs to pick up those tatters of history, investigate their contours and discern their movement through centuries past up to the present. It would need to recognize that oppressions of race and gender have taken critically different forms throughout history, and that in those transformations there may lie the key for a transformation that liberates us from them entirely. But Kara Walker is not here to emancipate, she’s here to make art.