I made it over to the Whitney Museum this morning to preview Kara Walker’s mid-career retrospective. You might say that Walker has just one subject, but it’s one of the big ones, the endless predicament of race in America.
The Whitney show, which debuted in February at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, includes Walker’s smaller works on paper, wood and canvas board. These are mostly watercolors and mixed media pieces that are like laboratory experiments in converting psychic energy into charged imagery. There are also two rooms set aside to screen the animated films that Walker has been making in recent years. If you manage to see the show before it closes Feb. 3 — it moves later to L.A. — set aside the 16 minutes it takes to watch 8 Possible Beginnings, Or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker, which calls on everything from Balinese shadow puppetry to Disney’s version of Uncle Remus.
But inevitably the centerpieces of the show are Walker’s now famous cut black paper silhouettes. Some of them are individual images on canvas, but more commonly she combines a cast of antebellum plantation characters into panoramic wall pieces. These form a phantasmagoria of whites and blacks copulating, farting, defecating, floating, giving birth and suckling one another, always locked together in the mutually degrading transactions of master and slave.
Walker’s wall pieces represent the return of the repressed with a vengeance. She has a gift for finding her way by unexpected routes to uncomfortable places. A great deal of banal, hectoring, finger wagging political art was made in the ’90s, but her cut paper silhouettes were nothing like that. With their wit and craftsmanship, their shrewd appropriation of old story telling techniques and their fearless and pitch perfect combinations of terror, anger and low comedy, they were some of the most unforgettable work of the last decade.
The question remains whether Walker’s now familiar practices and preoccupations can sustain her for another decade or more. But there’s no question that she’s made something powerful and original from them so far. It was because of the wall pieces in particular that earlier this year, when my esteemed editors asked me to propose an artist for the Time 100 list of the world’s most influential people, I knew right away who it should be.