New York

Kara Walker

One does not “enjoy” a Kara Walker show, and this is odd because she is an enchantingly skillful artist. She slogs through a swamp of race, history, trauma, and desire, which is hard enough, then pirouettes along a tightrope between grotesque stereotype and idiosyncrasy, which is even trickier. To engage such material—to embarrass and even offend audiences and to ensnare the eager critic in contradiction and multiple meaning—adds up to an ambitious enterprise. But Walker has for almost a decade met the challenge with the unwavering ludic rage characteristic of great social satire.

The work demands direct address to its political significations. And yet Walker’s sensibility is profoundly formal; she’s obsessed with unimpeachably neutral issues like line, texture, scale, color, and the way text inflects image. Her recent show was titled simply “Drawings,” suggesting that the relative consistency, even predictability—though never simplicity—of her content has become a counterweight to continuing modifications of form. And this in turn raises the interesting possibility that her master narrative of race and rape, her miasmatic plantation of the collective cultural mind, could now be said to function as a folktale, a “classic” whose endless iterations rely on subtle formal shifts to body forth the lessons of its archetypically static content.

Walker is famous for monstrous and delicate, often near-life-size black-paper silhouettes, assembled from the boneyard of southern gothic—a pigtail here, an apron there, a bared breast, a hoopskirt, a broad-brimmed hat, a penis. From her 1994 New York debut in a group show at the Drawing Center to this year’s exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, these unstable bodies have struck a dizzying array of poses, all of them variations on violation. Even in the “Drawings” show, where only one piece was devoted to black cutouts on white, a sense of flickering, knife-sharp, yet abyssal “shades” remained, as if the folk figure of the silhouette were masquerading in a costume of pencil. One of the exhibition’s key images, for example (Untitled, 2003), shows a bucktoothed girl drawn in black graphite, grinning into the void. The orb of her huge Afro rhymes with her blank eyepits and dot-like aureolas, proposing her race, her psyche, and her sex as redundant circles. A rattan chain pierced into the paper connects her nipples; a dark cloud billows from her labia. None of these details would be visible if the image were silhouetted—yet all their implications would be there.

Every piece in the show investigates the properties of drawing versus cutout. In a series of colored-pencil sketches (all Untitled, 2003), closely shaded strokes of blue, brown, green, or orange lightly fill in the outlines of figures—“colored” versions of the black-paper shapes without their heft, contour, or opacity. It doesn’t matter, though, whether the specter of miscegenation is intrinsic to the material or overlaid: The pictures still amuse and horrify.

In short, Walker treats her tales as myth that must be hypnotically repeated, a repressed constantly returning in new guises; her focus on graphic experiment and formal precision positions her as griot, telling the same story over and over, always alike, never the same, for the benefit of a culture that does not know itself. Language is as important here as other formal, visual elements, and like a slave narrative framed by an abolitionist’s testimony, Walker’s images are gleefully overdetermined through titles (Search for Authenticity Sketched from Life at a South Carolina Slave Auction by Myself) and captions (ONE DAY WHITE AMERICA WILL REALIZE IT HAS BECOME THE NATION’S NIGGER) that decorate, complicate, and interrogate without explaining. As a scribbled caption warns, IT’S A TRAP AND YOU LOVE IT!

Frances Richard