Washington, DC

William Christenberry

Corcoran Gallery of Art

Many of William Christenberry’s photographs have an eerie quality; looking at them you can almost see Walker Evans’ photographs looming up ghostlike in front of them. This is not especially surprising, since Christenberry was born and raised—and has done most of his photography—in Hale County, Alabama, where Evans and James Agee lived while they worked on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Moreover, Christenberry has chosen to photograph much the same sort of subjects as Evans did, and in the same style: vernacular architecture and folk artifacts of various sorts, all depicted in a deceptively plain-featured manner involving the use of a large-format camera and sharp focus, with people absent from the scenes. Christenberry works in color, but that seems only a superficial difference from Evans’ black and white. Presented on their own (as they are in William Christenberry: Southern Photographs, a new monograph from Aperture), his photographs thus seem like curious homages to Evans’ classic blend of American Scene subject matter and the suppressed romanticism of hyperrealist presentation. This excellent retrospective exhibition, though, showed Christenberry’s photographs in the context of his work in other media, including the Robert Rauschenberg-influenced early paintings; his scale-model recreations of buildings from his photographs; the metaphoric “building” sculptures of his “Southern Monuments” series; and a suite of work based on the Ku Klux Klan.

In much of this work Christenberry relies on a tactic of miniaturization, of model-making. His highly detailed recreations of buildings that appear in his photographs—country churches, abandoned farmhouses, and the like, all reduced to 2 or 3 feet in height—suggest dollhouses or the buildings in model-train layouts. His “Southern Monuments” evoke the South in a less literal way: small (6 inches high or so) cubic structures that suggest gas stations or sheds are arranged, along with such basic geometric forms as spheres and pyramids, in little tableaux on 2-foot-square platforms covered with red Alabama soil; some of the “sheds” have ladders up to their roofs, or miniature advertising signs attached to their sides as well. Reducing these typically Southern buildings and scenes to toylike scale has a curious double effect. On the one hand the objects are tamed, diminished not only in size but in the strength of the emotional associations they exercise because of their familiarity in American culture. By the same token, though, the great emotional meaning Christenberry himself attaches to them becomes apparent through the care he has lavished on them. Like photographs, they become the subjects of complex cathexes—they are memory-objects that both embody and release bundles of emotional energy.

Christenberry uses these same methods in his many works on the theme of the Ku Klux Klan, including drawings, photographs, and a diverse series of constructions incorporating dolls cloaked in white or red satin Klan hoods and gowns. Shown here in a “Klan Room” lit by ultraviolet light, these constructions include Klan dolls in toy jeeps, or inside open-framed versions of buildings that appear elsewhere in Christenberry’s work. In one piece a blonde woman doll lies in state in a coffinl ike box, with a hooded Klan doll peeking from beneath her petticoats. These Klan dolls have a ritualistic aspect, like voodoo images; Christenberry explores them both as toys and as fetishes invested with real power.

In the Klan Christenberry deals with a subject of continuing social importance, as well as intense personal interest—he has produced work on the theme for over twenty years. This is controversial work—the Corcoran posted a sign outside the Klan Room warning visitors about its contents. But Christenberry’s method, both exalting and mocking its subject, is extremely effective. The result is acutely focused, disturbing work of great immediacy and emotional power.

Charles Hagan