New York

Kara Walker, Christ’s Entry into Journalism, 2017, sumi ink and collage on paper, 11' 8“ x 16' 4”.

Kara Walker, Christ’s Entry into Journalism, 2017, sumi ink and collage on paper, 11' 8“ x 16' 4”.

Kara Walker

Kara Walker, Christ’s Entry into Journalism, 2017, sumi ink and collage on paper, 11' 8“ x 16' 4”.

Kara Walker made all of the works for her September show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. this past summer. She offers this information as a kind of afterthought, along with a dry, technical description of her awesome, stomach-turning output (“This is a show of works on paper and on linen, drawn and collaged using ink, blade, glue, and oil stick”) in the concluding paragraph of her accompanying statement. The text, save for its matter-of-fact ending, is an artful paroxysm of frustration and despair. Walker, an African American woman artist, who has for decades merged historical fact and fable to depict surreal, often pornographic scenes of the transatlantic slave trade and the antebellum South—drawing upon a pernicious American lexicon of caricature to do so—is tired now, she writes, “of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.’” It’s a burden made heavier, surely, by her shocking, unsparing, and controversial approach to a grave subject. “How many ways can a person say racism is the real bread and butter of our American mythology?” she wonders about her life’s work in light of that mythology’s dreadful new dawn.

Walker’s famous silhouettes—of genteel planters and their well-dressed women, archetypes of minstrelsy and white fantasies of black savagery—made an appearance in this show, lending their familiar air of ominous ambiguity to new works, such as the grand, infanticide-themed canvas Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something). But another level of detail and feverish urgency is achieved with her approach to collage. She cuts out her ink drawings, which conjure everything from political cartoons and anthropological illustrations to old-master sketches, and assembles these pieces into vignettes and chaotic clusters, or she isolates them in haunted landscapes or voids. Just as Walker’s silhouettes leave much to the imagination, drawing attention to our own prurient speculations, so do the tar-like expanses of black oil stick on her linen canvases, which represent more than swamps and starless nights.

Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit), a picture of utter calamity, is as moody and voluptuous as a Delacroix, with its ragged curtain of dark foliage and ravenous marshland. A black man—perhaps an escaped slave—sinks, submerged up to his eyes. Another looks incredulously at two white people lying in the bog as if dead on a battlefield. Women flee as a falling figure is sliced in half on a sharp tree branch. Then there is the person that stands, head bowed, in a corner of the grand triptych, holding a rake or pitchfork. It seems that he or she is the artist, dredging this disjointed nightmare from our nation’s battered psyche.

The show’s crescendo or centerpiece—a mural-size work on paper titled Christ’s Entry into Journalism—was not among its most sickeningly beautiful scenes, but was a Boschian feat, mixing post–Civil War and contemporary references with images of plantation-era life. Anchored at its lower corners by a stoic Frederick Douglass and a downcast Martin Luther King Jr., the composition is a melee of styles and time periods, as well as an index of race-based tensions, torments, and sexual stereotypes. Amid the depictions of rape, bondage, and lynching, you might spot a young, hoodie-wearing man’s head served on a platter, a Sieg heil–ing neo-Nazi with a rebel flag, and a figure who looks like Donald Trump, hiding in a Klansman’s robe, squatting to piss.

The work is a ruthless visual account of the summer of 2017 and all that led up to it, collapsing centuries to arrive at the horror of August, when the MAGA slogan’s deluded nostalgia crested in vintage mob violence, when white supremacists of all denominations converged to defend symbols of the Confederacy, and when the president spoke of “fine people on both sides” in defense of their lethal pageant. Though Walker, who has long mined the psychosexual substrate of genocide for the most heartbreaking dirty jokes imaginable, has never wanted for material (her studio overlooks the bottomless pit), she seems up to the task at hand. Tired as she may be, her surefooted transition from brutally relevant to acutely topical proves she’s the genius we still need.

Johanna Fateman