New York

Kara Walker, Levee, 2011, still from a color video, 1 minute 50 seconds.

Kara Walker, Levee, 2011, still from a color video, 1 minute 50 seconds.

Kara Walker

Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Kara Walker, Levee, 2011, still from a color video, 1 minute 50 seconds.

There are things one expects in a Kara Walker show: rape, lynching, dismemberment. Trees against stark sky, pert breasts, petticoats, high cravats. Women black or white with snaky tresses, field hands with huge erections, hatchet-faced overseers, little kids engaged in unspeakable acts. All the grotesquerie of Walker’s antebellum hells remained on hand in a recent pair of concurrent exhibitions. Yet there also appeared a slew of things one wouldn’t have thought to look for, such as an enraged intergalactic nude prophesying in go-go boots (Muckraking Prophet from the 21st C. Foretells Coming Doom, 2011). Or two portraits of Billie Holiday—one a cameo in a larger drawing called Nightlight (the Jazz Fan), and one a Wikipedia-inspired word-drawing—DRUG ABUSE, DRINKING, AND RELATIONSHIPS WITH ABUSIVE MEN CAUSED HER HEALTH TO DETERIORATE . . . (both 2010). Or a quiet one-minute-and-fifty-second video, filmed along a section of embankment beside the Mississippi River as dawn brightens the horizon (Levee, 2011). Here, those familiar silhouetted trees stand up as they did in the older paper cutouts. But now the bare black branches and blue air are real—or rather, are depicted in a medium whose mimetic powers are very different from those that animate the shadow puppets and graphite-and-pastel drawings that comprised most of the two shows. The exhibitions were titled “Dust Jackets for the Niggerati—and Supporting Dissertations, Drawings submitted ruefully by Dr. Kara E. Walker” (at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.) and “Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale” (at Lehmann Maupin). The first, as its title suggests, was a sort of exploded book, presenting forty-four large-scale black-and-white works on paper, hung salon style. The second was a pared-down suite of three videos, plus one work on paper that served as a title card.

In Levee, which was on view at Lehmann Maupin, the filmic realness feels meditative, if foreboding. In a longer video downtown, also titled Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale, 2011, photographic directness subtly structures a tale of delta violation, including a lyrical and upsetting sequence in which a puppet’s lynched body is burned by actual flames, then briefly juxtaposed with a black-and-white photograph showing a similar scene as it truly happened in some terrible American town in the not-so-distant past. Both bodies, as they appear before us in the artwork, are paper shapes that have been placed before a camera. How can such artifacts be reconciled with coherent “real life”? How can they keep replaying, morphing, like this? How can they not recur, since their horror is unassimilable? Walker’s constantly inventive formal means push these, her basic questions, into our thoughts yet again. And, as usual, she makes it funny. Perhaps the least expected twist among her new experiments is that Walker herself stars in another short video called Bad Blues, 2011. Sprawled on a leather couch in a dimly lit suburban-looking den, wearing nothing but a red V-neck sweater, she tries—badly—to sing the blues, looking like a teenager on YouTube.

Billie Holiday shares space at Sikkema with text pieces about the lives of Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, and Louise Beavers (SO-CALLED QUEEN, SHE BECAME THE ON-SCREEN PERSONIFICATION OF THE MAMMY STEREOTYPE . . . ). There are jazz babies and city drunks, a Black Power brother wearing a beret, and a dude in a do-rag. In short, not only is Walker stretching the fragile membrane that separates her graphic universe from realms of flesh and blood, she is also forging ahead in history. The great Northern migration, the Jazz Age, the movies, and the sci-fi future belong to her now. Her drawings are densely worked, with shallow spaces full of sinuous forms pushed close to the picture plane, like berserker Daumiers, and the comic fury of Goya is still her guiding principle. She has not released the nineteenth century, but she’s creeping up on the present.

Frances Richard