Kara Walker has a great sense of humor. This is something that’s possible to miss — not because her playfulness isn’t right out on the surface of her paper cutouts (it is), but because the subject matter is often so bleak that it feels wrong to laugh. Slavery isn’t funny, and the long history of racism in America isn’t, either. Seeing Walker’s art means coming face to face with both. The levity of her work helps make the pain bearable.
And this art does indeed radiate pain, and plenty of it. “Kara Walker: Virginia’s Lynch Mob and Other Works,” which will be on view at the Montclair Museum until Jan. 6, comes complete with two trigger warnings: one at the beginning of the show, and one right before the film that concludes the exhibit. Some visitors might object to her blunt reappropriation of stereotypical images of African-Americans; others might not want to be confronted quite so starkly with our national shame.
They may as well hang a trigger warning sign on the entire country. Walker is determined to show us something essential, and near-mythological, about the story of the United States — an ugly, sticky, complicated part of our collective consciousness that’s never far from the surface. And it is worth paying attention, because rarely will you be addressed as clearly by an artist as you will at a Walker show. Kara Walker doesn’t mess around: her tough, uncompromising images go straight into the viewer’s bloodstream. Her work speaks directly to terrible things that all Americans know, but don’t like to dwell on. If her sense of play wasn’t as well developed as it is, her art would be too hard to look at.
“Virginia’s Lynch Mob,” which is a new acquisition by the Montclair Museum, is the centerpiece of this modest-sized but powerful show, and it is representative of the artist at her best. Although she works in other mediums — paint, print, film — her favored delivery mechanism for her ideas is the silhouette, cut from black paper and affixed directly to a white wall. These cutouts are large, detailed, racially encoded figures of human beings. They have the fantastic quality of cartoons and the starkness of prophecy. All unnecessary information has been brutally excised. Taken individually, the silhouettes are arresting. Arranged into tableaus, they tell tales of the antebellum South that are simultaneously romantic and horrific, taken from the pages of a storybook that never existed except in the backs of the minds of guilty Americans.
Ruthlessly and unapologetically, Walker’s work brings the violent undercurrents of storytelling about the South to the surface. “Virginia’s Lynch Mob” contains, among other things, period weaponry in the hands of children, a little girl with a Ku Klux Klan hood in her hands, a gravedigger and a hangman with his rope and, pointedly, an abduction by an eagle. Then there is Virginia herself, a girl airborne, named for a slave state, with her braids streaming behind her as she leaps. She may be ascending to safety, but she is dangerously close to the kicking boot of a drum major. Walker has always been fascinated by Civil War battlefield cycloramas, and has often shown her silhouettes in a partial round; in keeping with this, the Montclair Museum has built a curved wall to present “Virginia’s Lynch Mob.”
It is so potent — so rich with symbolic meaning — that the rest of the exhibition can feel reiterative. But Walker has so much to say on her subjects that none of her glosses on race, sexuality, the Civil War and dark American legend are ever worth skipping. In the first gallery, for instance, viewers are confronted by “Emancipation Approximation, Scene #18,” a silhouette of a black woman carrying a white woman whose party gown looks suspiciously like a ball of cotton. Only a person ignorant of the basics of history could miss the implications. The illustration is perfectly realized — its composition eerily well balanced, body positions redolent with pain and privilege — and it lands like a gut-punch. If it’s obvious, but it still desperately needs to be said … well, whose fault is that?
Slightly (but only slightly) less successful than the silhouettes are Walker’s amendments of illustrations of Civil War-era prints from Harper’s Weekly. These images presented the war as a struggle between two groups of white men, arrayed in ranks on battlefield, poised and dignified and ready to kill and die. Absent from the Harper’s illustrations was any trace of the monstrous realities that had driven Americans to arms, and Walker does her best to reinsert them, superimposing black faces and lynching trees atop the original prints. This reclamation project isn’t clumsy, but it can be heavy-handed in a way that the cutout wall silhouettes, graceful and mordant even at their most uncompromising, never are.
The best and most complex of these is “Exodus of Confederates From Atlanta From Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated),” in which a silhouette of the head of an African-American woman almost completely obscures the scene. Inside the face of the cutout is another cutout — a window in the shape of an African-American man. He looks one way, she looks the other, and through the hole in the head, we glimpse a dark-skinned figure tending to the wounds of a Confederate soldier.
Slavery, Walker’s work assures us, is a terrible crime in which all Americans are complicit in some manner — and even if it was abolished by law, it still lives on in our deep psychologies and the stories we tell each other about our nation. We haven’t begun to wash away the sins of the Civil War or the centuries of bondage that preceded it, and that residue accrues to the mind of captors and captives alike. Slaves do not get off scot-free in Walker’s art. They are sometimes shown exploiting their personal or sexual power over their masters and taking advantage of the meager rewards the system offers to some of its victims. This, too, is a peculiar American hallucination. Fear of — and respect for — the erotic power of people of color has been commonplace in our country’s storytelling. Walker likes to send this up.
But she also wants to demonstrate that savagery is not the exclusive sport of the oppressor, and that the trauma of American history has left its scars on everyone. The final gallery of the exhibition is devoted to “Testimony,” a brutal, mesmerizing swamp-dream of a film in which Walker stages an insurrection of cut-outs. With pent-up rage and runaway sexuality, the former slaves take over, with predictably ghastly results. The violence of “Testimony” is both underscored and contradicted by its hand-made quality; indeed, the hands of the animator, marching the silhouettes across the frame, are often visible.
In its intimacy, “Testimony” is reminiscent of the mournful, pencil-sketched animations of the South African artist William Kentridge, another filmmaker who confronts racial violence with frankness, and occasional mitigating humor. Kentridge is a white man. Walker is a black woman. But they are united in sorrow, their acknowledgment of the pulverizing effect of history, and their determination to speak frankly at all costs — with a tight, grim, knowing smile to hold back the tears.
“Kara Walker: Virginia’s Lynch Mob and Other Works” will be on display at the Montclair Art Museum through Jan. 6; visit montclairartmuseum.org.