Kara Walker, Oct. 22-Nov. 28, 1998, at Wooster Gardens, 558 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.
No one gets out of Kara Walker's world alive, not even the artist. In one of her characteristic, nearly life-size black silhouettes in cut paper, a naked black girl kneels to suck the cock of a white slaver. We're already in deep water. He has the claws and paws of Satan, the jaw of an ape. His cock goes into her mouth and out her ass. The image is titled Successes.
A lot of people hate Kara Walker's work and her successes. In certain circles, there is a veritable fatwa on her head. She's too black for some, not enough for others. The African American sculptor Betye Saar sent out hundreds of letters warning that Walker's "images may be in your city next," and signing herself "an artist against negative black images." Last spring, at a two-day Harvard symposium convened to address issues of stereotypical imagery in art, Walker (absent) and her work were attacked as being especially reprehensible. To these people, Kara Walker is a demon: the black girl in Successes who stoops to accommodate the white art world. Funny thing is, Walker would probably find these readings somewhat on the mark.
There are obvious reasons for controversy. The pain of racism is so big and Walker's world so ambiguous and so devoid of the good-old sinless black victim: the passive, sexless Christian Negro.
A generational abyss of metaphysical proportions comes into high relief around Walker. Older blacks feel that images of mammies, pickaninnies and Sambos are irredeemably evil -- that they cannot speak except with malice and hate. Younger people assume all images are unstable projections, subject to change. As always, both camps ignore how good art can lift you above the problem and change lives.
Next to the word "America" in the dictionary should appear the definition "incredibly uncomfortable and obsessed with race." Walker mines the source of this discomfort and goes so deep that everyone is implicated. She gets down to what may be the sexual nature of all power, all dominance and submission. Sex is both a reality and a metaphor in her work for the profound violation that slavery and its long aftermath represent and the distorting accommodations it fosters. She touches the secret spot where eroticism and exorcism meet.
Look at Concubine, a large silhouette piece: a sexy black girl in a banana skirt sucks her own tit. She's right out of a '30s Hollywood movie: the naked cannibal nightclub dancer; you can almost feel that big-band jungle beat. She sucks herself because she can, and because it's the only way she's going to get any nourishment in this world. It's an image of self-consumption and self-reliance -- pathetic and heroic. Meanwhile, a fat little white boy in front of her sucks at one of her bananas. Cliché, nightmare, fantasy and stereotype detonate ancient equations of racism.
Françoise Vergés said that black writers and artists have, for decades, "dreamed a country where they would not be niggers, then woke to find that this country did not exist." Kara Walker dreams a country where everyone, everything is a nigger, then allows it to destroy itself.
Walker gets the wimpy, unassuming, long dead medium of cut-paper silhouette to sing the hymn of the divided self and take on vast paranoiac histories. After all, she seems to say, silhouette making is just a craft, it's not a "real" medium; it's something "ladies," children or machines can do. It's not "important" like painting. The silhouette, pre-Walker, was a genre of portraiture, caricature, idyllic landscape and decorative craft. In her hands, it becomes a deadly weapon and she an avenging angel. Her use of it as a material metaphor for sterotype is inventive and devastating.
The silhouette reduces everything to black and white; it objectifies and obscures. Her use of the silhouette is Walker's greatest formal leap -- her drip. But unlike Pollock's versatile technique, her cut-outs can get one-dimensional and visually repetitious. Here, she seems to be searching for a way to marry silhouette to drawing and text. She still hasn't fused them, but try deciphering a shadow dance like Beat and you'll find yourself in a quagmire of narrative possibilities. A black girl sticks her finger into the ass of a bent-over black man. An African drum is at his feet, a tiny European drummer perches on his back. Maybe the girl chides the stooping man, or maybe she's pointing an accusative finger at us for bending him over so; maybe the little drummer on his back is -- in James Baldwin's words -- "the weight of white poeple in this world."
This is a painful, uneven show. Walker has temporarily broken stride. Distracted by the debate swirling around her, she ferociously strikes back in Letter from a Black Girl, a wall-sized poison-pen note addressed "dear you hypocritical fucking twerp." Though it's a powerful piece of writing, dealing with slaves, masters, sex and art collecting, it doesn't feel fully integrated into the show. On the opposite wall, a flat-footed text-on-found-mirror installation called Free, Black and Passive Aggressive unsuccessfully attempts to deal with the God-awful sincerity of black bathos. But Walker, an amazing draftsperson, ups the ante and scale in a scalding, if not quite successful, series of drawings rendered in brown and black coffee stains. Her vision of a mad America has a whiff of Goya about it. Strange, bestial copulations emerge from murky darkness, a giraffe fondles a woman, and old men have heads for hands.
This show captures an artist in an unresolved period of growth. Since her 1996 exhibition at Wooster Gardens, Walker was included in the 1997 Whitney Biennial, has appeared on the cover of Frieze twice, and this year was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant. That amount of attention, combined with the backlash, was bound to have a warping effect.
Maybe Cut, another large silhouette, is a portrait of the artist caught in this vortex. In it, a black girl jumps for joy, clicks her heels and slits her wrists with a razor blade. Beautiful plumes of blood arc. Walker's tool, the razor, is also the source of her mortification and her liberation. She is cut, bleeds, but is in hysterical ecstacy. She lives.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this text first appeared.