Critics’ Picks

View of “Kara Walker: A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” 2014.

View of “Kara Walker: A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” 2014.

New York

Kara Walker

Creative Time
Multiple Locations 59 East 4th Street (office)
May 10–July 6, 2014

Gone are Kara Walker’s signature decal-flat silhouettes; no longer, in her latest show, do viewers confront two-dimensional, Rabelaisian scenes replete with characters ambiguously propositioning, fondling, dancing, and otherwise interacting with each other. Commissioned by Creative Time, Walker’s latest installation is scaled up, monumentalized, and experienced in the round. Its centerpiece, a thirty-five-foot-tall, seventy-five-foot long black woman, is constructed from sugar and posed like a sphinx. Her mien appears both seraphic and perturbed as she holds court, her status as a “mammy” accentuated by a smattering of cherubic figures made from brown sugar and porting baskets of sucrose, who seem to alternately conjure blackamoor figurines and the folkloric character of the tar baby.

Often, postindustrial spaces register as invisible tabula-rasa backdrops for contemporary art, or at most sites whose rough edges enhance the material and formal concerns of the work. (Take the minimalist offerings of Dia:Beacon, a former Nabisco cardboard-printing outfit.) But here Walker explicitly ties her cavernous and dilapidated site—the condemned Domino Sugar Factory—to the specifics of a historical economy predicated on exploitation: the Caribbean sugar-plantation model and the transatlantic slave trade that sustained it. In light of the stereotypes of black women that stem from such rankling chapters of history, the overt, almost august sexuality of Walker’s sphinx is particularly fraught. Visitors leaving the installation come face-to-face with her exposed vulva—while a sign, placed vexingly nearby, encourages viewers to post photos of the sphinx online. Walker once spoke of her work’s preoccupation with “attempts to steal power away from others.” By goading visitors to interact with her sphinx (whether by taking pictures or sneaking daubs of sugar falling from her toes, as someone did the day I visited), Walker has in effect enacted one of her bawdy trademark tableaux. Only now, many of her actors are flesh and blood, and they’re equipped with the tools of social media.