The BearMaiden Gets Cultured

On Thursday, Bigbear wanted me to go with her to the Whitney Museum to see Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. Bigbear reads things like "Art In America" and "Art News" and the Sunday Times pieces, and knows all about who's who in the art game/world, what their medium is and what people think of them. She also knows stuff like where the hot gallery scene is and who's in it.

I don't pay attention to things like that. And most times, bigname artists annoy me. In fact, the artworld annoys me. My experience with that world includes the very local view back in the days when the Studio Museum in Harlem was just a little loft over a very low-budget ghetto supermarket (instead of the fancy new stand-alone structure it is now). Also as a little girl in Paris, I had all sorts of strange artist and musician-types floating in and out of my apartment, especially 'round dinner time. A little girl's view of people like that tends to be of extremely egotistical people who like to drink wine and preach their view of the world over each other, getting progressively louder as the wine flows until somebody gets annoyed at someone for real, or gets really obnoxious and storms off. Then there's shouting and bad feeling and everybody goes home.

I also get annoyed by questions "OK, but is it art?", especially when there's some buzz about somebody who decided to saw a cow in half and stick in a vat of formaldehyde, or paint a picture of Christ or the Virgin and stick it in pee. Cuz no, I don't think that's art. I generally think of art as self expression done with some tangible medium like paint or pencil or an instrument.

So I wasn't *overly* crazy about going to the Whitney. In fact it was FAR more important to me to get my hair done and my eyebrows threaded, cuz I'm feeling particularly overwhelmed by life at the moment, and attending to my personal grooming tends to make me feel better about things. But Bigbear was excited, and I haven't actually hung out with her sans drama and/or other (dramatic) family members in a minute or two, so I said "sure, I'll go... but I'm getting my hair done first." Which I did. And had to wear a hat on top of it all day cuz it was "snaining" (snow and freezing rain).

I had no idea who Kara Walker is or what she does. So here's an uninformed persons view of the show, cuz apparently, she's got some kind of street cred. And I'm not being funny about that... as we were going through the exhibit Bigbear told me of the accolades she's received, as well as some of the criticism, and afterwards I "googled" her a little bit. But previous to Thursday... no clue.

(So if you're like me, and didn't know, you can follow the links, but here's a picture:)

Technique-wise, I was impressed. I have a "thing" for black and white--it probably stems from my deep love of (traditional media) photography and the two years or so I spent in a darkroom. I sometimes think it takes way more work to design or illustrate in black and white as opposed to color, because you have to really pay attention to space and contrast. In color, you can "fudge" a lot of things, but in black and white you can't. And if you're literally doing black and white, using no shades gray in between, it can be downright boring unless you really know what you're doing.

So I really enjoyed the starkness of her work. She knows what she's doing. There were a couple of pieces of a larger piece that were downright stunning; there was one cutout of a crescent moon with clouds passing over it that was just beautiful. I also appreciated that she understood and effectively used stereotypes of slaves and owners; her cutouts clearly appropriated the pre-Civil War view of African features, and the cutouts themselves could have been done by someone from that time. She fully inhabited that era, and as someone who can become obsessed with things I related to that. I think I understood the story she was telling, and I liked that her work was powerful enough to unsettle you. Particularly the white people who were there... they shifted uncomfortably as Bigbear (looking especially Indian in her fringed boots) and I passed through. There were some Brownskinned people there too... but VERY few and I'm fairly certain they were all one group from one of those "I'm middle-aged-and-been-through-hell-but-I'm-finally-going-to-college" type community colleges, like Touro or Monroe. And I didn't get the feeling that Walker's work spoke to them. The conversations I overheard were "Where's our Professor?" and nothing about "Did you see the such-and-such one? What did you think?"

There was a small, circular room installation, "Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery or 'Life at Ol' Virginny's Hole (sketches from Plantation Life)' " See the Peculiar Institution as never before! All cut from black paper by the able hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and leader in her Cause", that I thought was just brilliant... the whole idea of standing in the center of the room and turning slowly to take in the panoroma just tickled me.

There were some papercuts on canvas with guache or tempera that were really, really nice. Makes me want to try something like that one day.

"Darkytown Rebellion," another installation, had colors from projected transparencies over cutouts on the wall, which was way, way cool.

There are two rooms showing looped movies; one had sound and the other didn't, and they were interesting. It was cool to see the papercuts "come to life" and being used as shadow puppets to tell a story. Bigbear liked them, but I got annoyed at the prolonged sex scenes.

Which brings me to what I didn't like about her work. I'm no prude, at least I don't think so. I've watched pornographic movies but I don't like most of them; I find them incredibly boring because they are usually laughably bad with no plotline whatsoever. A few lines of stupid and badly delivered dialogue that really serves no purpose other than to interrupt loooong sex scenes accompanied by really awful music. And they usually only show one angle--for the man's benefit-- and the sex is pretty unrealistic (though gay porn is another story). But the fact that "exploited" women are acting in them and that men can watch them incessantly doesn't particularly bother me. If they were more interesting, I'd have no problem watching them. I bring this up because there are a LOT of sexual references in her work (leave the kiddies home, folks, unless you want to do a lot of 'splainin') and to me, it got to be monotonous. Watching them, I began to feel the same way about them that I do pornos. There was a lot of fornicatin' back in them days, I get it. And a lot of it was brutal. And maybe we're all screwed up (pun intended) as a country because of it, but the imagery was relentless, and none of it was redeemed. There was also a LOT of reference to "poop" and "flatulence", and if you're the parent of an 8 year old (boy in particular, but 8 year old girls are guilty, too) as I am, you might understand how "it's funny the first 100 times..."and not so much after that.

I also wasn't overly crazy about her drawings. They weren't "spectacular" the way her silhouettes were. They were good; don't get me wrong. She draws and inks better than me, but she was no Rembrandt--who's graphite drawings can reach across a span of centuries and smack you upside the head.

But the overall thing I liked least was her bleak and very narrow view. Bigbear said later that none of her women images were particularly strong, and I agreed with her. I came away feeling that her point of view was that Black women survived the horrors of slavery as a testament to our ability NOT to fight back. Like our strength is the the ability to endure, to suffer, but given half the chance we'd become just like our oppressors. There wasn't an "end" to the story, there wasn't a "growth". You didn't walk away feeling like you'd "come through" something and survived; you just came through it. And maybe she feels that way... but I don't.

And I don't because there's something I've inhabited, and she hasn't, and that's my Indian. Yeah, I know, my favorite subject. But standing in the panoramic room it suddenly dawned on me that her world is very "black and white," and so it throws her whole view off-balance. She believes the hype--the version of history we've been sold, and when I looked her up later I read that she came from a very diverse California background to a very segregated south at the age of 13. Having come from a very segregated (by virtue of country) "all black" environment to a more diverse New York at the age of 12, I can relate to the culture shock and how that shapes your view. But I've always known my own personal history; that I'm more "diverse" in my blood than I look, and when I got older and went looking for my Indian and saw how much a part of us all that Indian was, it freed me from all the hate and the anger. Because I began to see that the hate between "Black and White" is contrived, designed to keep the current system in place. If we all really faced the true history of this country and how intertwined we all really are, it wouldn't be as easy to "hate" a group of people, because where do you begin to delineate who's who?

But in her world, it's easy to delineate. And so the anger and despair never diffuses and dissipates. So then I couldn't relate to it much after that, and we left.

Bigbear felt it was more illustration than art, and I told her as someone trained to be an illustrator, I fully considered it "art". Because art is where you get to express your own story and point of view in your own "words", whereas an illustrator is paid to express someone else's point of view; you're fed the story... you're given the parameters, you're told what emotion you are to project.

(So hmmm..... seeing as how Walker is "fed" the traditional version of pre-Civil War south, and is accepting of the parameters, maybe it *is* "illustration".)

Anyway. Actually, an extremely "fun" thing happened while browsing in the gift shop. I picked up a book about the making of "Wildstyle", one of the first movies about hip hop. (Shit... it's the 25th anniversary of that movie. Dang, I'm old.) To my great delight, they had some photos the filmmakers had taken at "The Valley" in the Bronx, in 1980, while researching for the movie. I WAS THERE. Not in the picture... but in 1980 I was a freshman in HS. The following summer, '81 I guess, my girls and I used to sneak out of Harlem on the #2, and go to the "Jams" in the Valley. I have to go through my photo albums and dig up my photos... and see what I wrote in my 1980-81 diaries about those jams...

Bigbear wrote her thoughts on this show, too, and I told her that later on, I'd post it. Maybe :)


S.K. said…
I actually want to check this out.

The images kinda seem like something you would see in a children book. (an old racist one) But the images are very strong and I can see the story she's telling very clearly.

Great Post.

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