New York

Kara Walker

Wooster Gardens

Controversy is often thought to be good for an artist—and who, after all, would set out to be innocuous?—yet it must by definition mean that there are not only people who love your work but people who hate it. Kara Walker certainly has both: In 1997 she won a MacArthur, in 1998 she became a target at a Harvard symposium on the invidious use of the black stereotype. The topic should be painfully sensitive to Americans, which means that feelings of upset at Walker’s art must be respected—you can’t just say they’re wrong. (Although surely the outrage directed against the artist includes other, more ambiguous reactions.) For this viewer, though, Walker’s negotiation of her minefield of a subject has real fascination.

The most self-evident defense of Walker’s “pickaninnies” and “nigger wenches” (the words are hers), cut out of black paper and set on the white wall, is that they are satiric. But satire is a misleading word for what Walker does; her work has an engaging appeal—a formal elegance and a contentious eroticism. If these invite the charge that she contributes to the attraction rather than the subversion of the stereotype, they are also a part of what complicates her work and makes it interesting. “I keep trying to make the work pretty enough that people’s offenses won’t pan out thoroughly,” Walker has said; “their sense of revulsion will sort of peter out at some point, as they’re overwhelmed by a kind of desire.”

The recent show included not only Walker’s familiar cutouts (all works 1998), which remake the Victorian genre of the silhouette, but a fierce passage of writing on the wall, an installation using found ornamental mirrors (the least rewarding section here), and works on paper in coffee and gouache. Walker chose to work in a beverage, she has said, after reading a poem listing “delicious” associations with the black body (ginger, chocolate, coffee), and picked coffee because of its “intoxicating power of badness”—“Everyone loves coffee but you know what happens if you drink too much.” The resulting drawings are washy and amorphous. Loose sepia spills provide the grounds for more carefully drawn outlines, often of bodies in various stages of sexual convolution or distorting into suggestive swellings or winding snakelike forms. Like the Surrealists like Victor Hugo, or even like certain old masters, Walker appears to have created or incorporated accidents as triggers for free association.

This is an interesting direction, since accident must be an anxious register for the silhouette artist—it cannot be erased, scraped off, or painted over. Yet the lines of Walker’s cutouts are gorgeously flowing, and this fluidity, I think, shares something with the liquidity of the poolings and blots in the drawings. Both, also, seem rooted in the omnivorous and metamorphic quality of Walker’s imagination. The silhouettes depend on the most absolute black-and-white contrast, the coffee drawings on a soft, muted melting of one form into another over a mottled off-white ground, but in both, everything seems to be more than one thing at once. In the silhouette Consume, for example, a girl who sucks her own breast wears a Josephine Baker-style skirt of bananas, to one of which a small boy puts his mouth—so that fruit becomes penis, girl becomes boy, the body becomes food, and sex becomes both nurture and cannibalism. Meanwhile the silhouette form itself involves a constant ambiguity between positive and negative, imprint and void. Walker’s heightened sensitivity to simultaneous possibilities—not only prettiness and offense, desire and revulsion, intoxication and badness, white and black, but less polar combinations of qualities—seems to me a fine lens through which to view gender and race in America. It can get her into trouble, sure, but it can get her out of it too, since art is a place where troubles and rewards are often the same thing.

David Frankel