Kara Walker at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery (Short Review)
Kara Walker knows her work makes you uncomfortable. In Walker's exhibit at the Sikkema Jenkins gallery in Chelsea, she keeps her word as clear as ever. The exhibit displays everything from large scale composites with her signature black cutout figures, simulated mini narratives and actions between individuals, to desolate, shrouding works illiciting emotions we associate with both the color black and society's rendition of the black race – scary, intimidating, a threat to whiteness, subject to erasure. The charcoal washes seeping throughout the pieces serves as the modern day issue of racism - the liberal compromise. This attempts to obscure the discomforting reality of slavery and police brutality alike, lessening the blow by communicating that everything is not literally, or figuratively, so black and white.
In Walker's first major composite, The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (2017, 125.5 x 140 in), there is a chaotic plethora of human interactions, narratives, and emotions. They exist in thin and fragile outlines met with varying shades of watered down black. The brush strokes manifest as hasty, saturated ink smudges, residue like that of dirty paint water, and eggshell white disturbed by detail etchings. Walker's signature employment of exaggerated stereotypes is at work. Many of the black individuals are depicted as the dehumanized, savage stereotype. They are in raggedy clothing or stripped down to their underwear, committing uncivil acts like ripping out a white man's guts with their bare hands or pestering white men with ropes and poles. A child is pictured poking a suffering dog with a stick with a facial expression void of sympathy. This serves to alienate black people not only from social norms but from
American western ideals in particular, like the fact that dogs in America are for domesticating and violence is committed with guns and cannons.
The stereotypes historically reign old and new, as if to equate historical depictions and racism to modern day racism, dismantling the illusion of modernism. A black man is pictured in a durag smoking a joint, minding his own business, not far from another black man with a hoodie up and a snapback wielding a dagger that he doesn't seem to recognize as his own, looking at the white man who is assaulting him from behind and perhaps framing him. This symbolizes the idea of the white American ideals and dream always looming in the hopes of destroying the futures of black people who dress like “thugs” or “criminals”. It is consistent with all forms of distancing from American ideals. And as if it isn't painful to make the devastation of slavery and racism and genocide a game, the big picture makes it so: the white man and the black women are playing tug of war with each other, and presumably, the burden of history remaining unchanged.