Critics’ Picks

Kara Walker, November 5, 2008, 2009, mixed media, cut paper, and acrylic on two gessoed panels. 84 x 72" each.

Kara Walker, November 5, 2008, 2009, mixed media, cut paper, and acrylic on two gessoed panels. 84 x 72" each.

New York

Mark Bradford and Kara Walker

Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
530 West 22nd Street
September 10–October 17, 2009

From Kara Walker’s diminutive silhouette sculptures and new videos to Mark Bradford’s meticulous graphite transfers and mixed-media riffs on the vernacular of urban advertising, this exhibition does not rest on the proverbial laurels of its MacArthur “Genius” grantees.

With the triptych 10 Years Massacre (and Its Retelling) (all works 2009), Walker has forayed into painting. A stray tree branch and a single disembodied leg float in a stark landscape. But the hieratic, crisp contrasts of the artist’s characteristic cutouts appear somewhat loosened by the attendant application of paint. Nearby, a room of six canvases by Bradford feels, already, like an excerpt of a museum retrospective on a major artist (something to take place soon, in fact, at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio). Some of the works incorporate half-hidden networks of nylon rope, which fracture the field of white paint into webs and ripples, occasionally betraying the odd scrap of collaged paper. Bradford’s canvases conjure up landmarks of twentieth-century modernism––from Kurt Schwitters to New York School AbEx to Piero Manzoni’s Achromes and beyond––while making their pictorial problems seem entirely fresh. The works’ transcendental titles (The Vault of Heaven, Crossing the Threshold, and The Four Corners of the Universe, to name a few) stand at productive odds with the hard-and-fast materiality of their surface events. Around the corner, a wall of gouaches by Walker stirs up some less metaphysical, if no less striking, themes, particularly in the work Every Painting Is a Dead Nigger Waiting to Be Born.

It is in Walker’s sprawling mixed-media panels November 5, 2008 that we find the most striking points of convergence (however unwitting) between the two artists. Walker has transposed her characteristic silhouettes into a field of white-on-white, in which square patches of painted collage elements are scattered across the two gessoed panels, and only subtle demarcations of contour permit the discernment of figure from ground. Several human figures appear delineated in various scales and proportions, rendering its narrative elliptical. A clue to its subject appears, à la the purloined letter, in plain sight: A New York Times clipping pinned to its surface reports the stoning to death of a young rape victim in Somalia. Though put to different ends, Walker’s incorporation of found materials and attention to surface here engage with Bradford’s masterful abstractions while not relinquishing her typically lyric evocation of (recent) history and its horrors.