New York

Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014, polystyrene foam blocks, granulated white sugar, water, corn syrup, sugar, molasses, resin. Installation view.

Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014, polystyrene foam blocks, granulated white sugar, water, corn syrup, sugar, molasses, resin. Installation view.

Kara Walker

The Former Domino Sugar Factory

Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014, polystyrene foam blocks, granulated white sugar, water, corn syrup, sugar, molasses, resin. Installation view.

Astringent and overwhelming, like the weird burned-sweet tang that harshed the air inside the decommissioned Domino Sugar Factory warehouse where it hulked, A Subtlety, 2014, Kara Walker’s first large-scale public project, was the uneasy blockbuster of the New York art world’s midsummer. The artist’s crouching, house-size mammy, made from forty gleaming tons of bleach-white sugar molded onto foam blocks, stoically presided over a clutch of baby-faced blackamoors in a vast space literally coated with the auburn residue of a century’s worth of processing the sweet stuff. And she drew huge crowds to the Williamsburg coast of the East River, where Walker’s celebrated knack for strategic agitation was on colossally unsubtle display.

The gargantuan sculptural scenario—commissioned by Creative Time—may have represented a formal departure for Walker, whose work has typically stuck to the two-dimensional plane across her twenty-year career, but she mined the same appalling vein of racist caricature she always has, here riffing on two historical figures that propose enslaved black women and men as contentedly servile helpmates. A disorienting mix of seduction and menace, the thirty-five-foot-high, sphinxlike sugar baby—half Hottentot Venus, half devouring monster—was a welter of conflicting signals and gestures. With her rump in the air, gigantic genitalia exposed, she functioned as a frank monument to the mix of sexual and commodity fetishization that has long characterized Western society’s relationship to the black body. Seen square on, she loomed full-breasted on a bed of soft sugar, her left hand forming the figa, a gesture that in various cultures and at various times has been understood to refer to both the penis and the vagina; to both conjure fertility and ward off the evil eye; to mean, as the artist has said, “both good luck and fuck you.” Meanwhile, the brunet worker boys with their baskets were scattered around the long, high-ceilinged industrial space (soon to give way, along with its neighbors, to a sprawling high-rise commercial/residential complex), their smiles frozen in resin (and, in a few cases, cast sugar) like anthropological specimens prepared for some horrific premodern Kunstkammer.

One of her artistic generation’s most trenchant polemicist-historians, Walker has, of course, also long been one of its most polarizing figures, famously criticized for presenting her spectacularized mobilizations of still-raw stereotypes for audiences prone to see them as illustrating sentiments and behaviors so distant from their socioeconomic experience as to seem almost quaint. It’s always seemed to me that it’s precisely these kinds of people who constitute her target audience, but in the end it hardly matters: What she wants is for her work to be all knife and no handle; no matter what angle you approach it from, no matter how recklessly, or thoughtfully, you attempt to grasp it, you still get cut.

So much of Walker’s gambit depends on making the very act of encountering her images produce a kind of complicity in the viewer with their brutalities, something I’ve felt the work has sometimes struggled to do amid the myriad distancing effects of the oh-so-white cubes of the contemporary art world. In a site like the Domino factory, however—at one time, the largest sugar refinery in the world—amid the forensic evidence that marks the place as a kind of crime scene (few commodities are as interwoven with the story of slavery), its indictments were chillingly persuasive. In the acrid air there, down in the canyon between the molasses-brown walls, the issues of the project were given a kind of messy tangibility that was echoed in the entropic materiality of the work itself. By the time I visited, for example, the handful of servant boys cast from sugar had started to come apart: One’s posture seemed to slump a bit, another’s arm had broken off and shattered on the floor. I was told that the pieces were being picked up and put into the baskets the remaining boys carried, a gruesome recycling plan as charged as any gesture in the entire project. Of course, not everything could be cleaned up, and on a warm day in June, sticky brown fluid had begun to seep from around the bases of the remaining figures, trailing across the concrete floors. Walker will no doubt be happy to hear that I stepped in it.

Jeffrey Kastner