Friday, September 8, 2017

Kara Walker Traces Slavery’s Bitter Legacy With New Ways of Drawing

Like most outstanding artists, Kara Walker is unrelenting. In a press statement for her latest show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., she wrote in her familiar, mock-serious yet dead-serious tone that she was “tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model’ ” and of “being a featured member of my racial group and/or gender niche.” But Ms. Walker’s desire to stand down from the demands of her particular brand of fame has not made her stand down in her art, which is as disturbing and challenging as ever, if not more so.
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“The (Private) Memorial Garden of Grandison Harris,” with Sumi ink on paper collaged to linen with oil stick, is part of Ms. Walker’s new show at Sikkema Jenkins in Manhattan. CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
Honing more insistently to her longtime theme — the bitter legacy of slavery in the United States — the works in this assured exhibition unequivocally enter new territory. Narratively, they land solidly where Ms. Walker has only lightly tread: the remorseless, racialized American present, which is suffused with the death rattle of white male domination and its multiple bigotries. Visually they find the artist returning fully to two dimensions after her triumphal public sculpture, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” the monumental and vexatious sugarcoated woman-sphinx of 2014. Now she is pushing with new rigor at the boundaries of her primary medium and material — drawing and paper — merging collage, political cartoon and history painting, and this gives her story line more force.
The show is a brawl of works on paper that has as much the feeling of a studio visit as an exhibition. Coming in various shapes and sizes — worked with Sumi ink, charcoal or watercolor — the paper is cut, torn and collaged, sometimes to canvas or raw linen the shade of tobacco, often with quantities of black paint and sometimes bits of color.
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Ms. Walker’s “Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” sumi ink and collage on paper. The images here are not exclusively contemporary — note a man resembling the abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the lower left corner — but they implicate current events. The work measures 151 by 191 inches.CreditSikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
The show’s centerpiece is the enormous “Christ’s Entry into Journalism” (2017) an 11 by 18 foot collage crowded with over 80 ink drawings of heads and figures. Its title echoes numerous historical depictions of “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem,” the biblical event preceding his betrayal, trial, death and resurrection; but perhaps journalism’s death and resurrection is the main point. The images here are not exclusively contemporary — note a man resembling the abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the lower left corner — but they implicate current events. Across the top of the piece a rebus depicts a rope salesman, a white farmer with a noose, a lynched figure and a Ku Klux Klan member whose parted robe reveals a figure in a suit and an extra-long tie who could be construed as the current occupant of the White House.
More prominent images evoke Civil Rights protesters; a Confederate flag and an arm raised in a Nazi salute; a policeman in riot gear pursuing a protester with a turkey leg and a cellphone; and Batman, carrying a figure wrapped as a mummy whose swollen black face may or may not refer to Emmett Till. At the center, a bare-chested black man raises his chained hands prayerfully. Nearby the severed head of a young black man in a hoodie is seen, upright, on a tray carried by a white woman, like Salome with the head of John the Baptist. More than ever, Ms. Walker’s work piles personages, events and possible interpretations before us, daring us to face her reality — and ours.
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Ms. Walker emerged in the mid-1990s with incendiary works set adamantly and slyly in the past that were frequently criticized as politically incorrect for caricaturing slavery in the antebellum South. Scaling up the demure 19th-century genre of the black-paper silhouette, she brought to elegant, repellent life an unending stream of vicious master-slave narratives — a continuum of violence, abuse and violation that consumed and corrupted almost all parties, regardless of age or race. Antic, profane and riveting, these mural-like scenes replayed history as farce and masqueraded tragedy as depraved comedy. They revealed the inevitable psychic corruption of humans owning humans, brought out the sexual component of oppression in any form and implied a country still shaped by the original sin of slavery.


“Dante (Free from the Burden of Gender or Race)” by Ms. Walker.CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times

Ms. Walker’s visual efforts have generally been aided by a sardonic ventriloquism that recycles 19th-century elocutions. The title of her current show runs 198 words and unspools in the cadences of a sideshow barker: “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to Present the Most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!.” And so on, as if to account for all possible reactions: “Collectors of Fine Art will Flock…,” “Scholars will Study and Debate…,” “Art historians will wonder…,” “Critics will shake their heads...” “The Final President of the United States will visibly wince.” One sentence is especially telling: “Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media.” Ms. Walker knows that with artistic reputation, what goes up must come down. She also knows that political correctness has returned, with various factions of the righteous trying to dictate what artists and museums should and should not show. (Consider the recent examples of Dana Schutz at the Whitney Biennial and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and Sam Durant at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.)
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“Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something),” by Ms. Walker. Her black silhouette cutouts migrate to a large whitewashed canvas. CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
Ms. Walker’s work might be seen as a three-pronged attempt to wreak havoc with racism, language — and drawing itself. Her signature black silhouettes, which have transferred well to printmaking, book illustrations and animated films, reappear, and Ms. Walker sometimes struggles to refresh them. She succeeds in “Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something),” where the black silhouette cutouts migrate to a large, seemingly whitewashed slab of canvas.
But she really cuts loose with the big collages and their rough-edged images, which recur in two other large collages, “U.S.A. Idioms” and “The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (after Delacroix, Kienholz).” Measuring some 10 by 11 feet, this last work is notable for a group of young black women in two-piece bathing suits; they bring to mind a black teenager at a pool party in McKinney, Tex., who was thrown to the ground and restrained by a white policeman.
By cutting and pasting various images, Ms. Walker is able to convincingly combine not only different times and histories, but also numerous drawing styles, which gives her art a new freedom and toughness that it has needed. Especially tough is a collage-painting titled “Spook,” one of three outstanding raw linen works. Placed near the gallery’s front door, it centers on a cut-out ink drawing of a black woman pleasuring herself in a dark woodland haunted by cutouts that contrast various threats: a snake, a bat, a white man with a noose. The surface is thick with tenderly applied black paint.
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“Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit),” by Ms. Walker. The works in her new show, on view at Sikkema Jenkins through Oct. 14, hone to her longtime themes while unequivocally entering new territory.CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
A different kind of combination of sensuous and tough is achieved in “Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit),” a triptych in which an assortment of figures, some pale as ghosts, sink into a vast black swamp beneath black trees. It is both morbid and mordant and contains some of Ms. Walker’s most ravishing ink drawing. Other works seem almost tossed off. A poignant example is an all-black oval canvas titled “Storm Ryder” and collaged with pieces of torn paper. One scrap gives a glimpse of a storm-tossed ship reminiscent of Albert Pinkham Ryder. Others convey the wise words of the subtitle: “You Must Hate Black People as Much as You Hate Yourself.” She seems to be saying that bigotry starts with unexamined self-hatred.


“Storm Ryder (You Must Hate Black People as Much as You Hate Yourself),” by Ms. Walker.CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times NYTCREDIT: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

In her press statement, Ms. Walker claimed that her latest efforts — all made during this excruciating summer — form a show that is “not exhaustive, activist or comprehensive in any way.” Maybe not. But the exhibition reveals a crossroads in her great career and she sails right through, from strength to new strength.

Six of Cinema’s Most Unforgettable

Fashion & Beauty / AnOther List

Six of Cinema’s Most Unforgettable Little Black Dresses

In memory of Mireille Darc, best known for wearing one of the most risqué black dresses in cinematic history, we examine the LBD's starring role on screen

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Le Grand Blond avec une Chaussure Noire, 1972(Film still)
Prior to 1926, black was a shade reserved for mourning attire alone. Yet, in 1927, the silent romantic comedy It, and its star Clara Bow, gave the little black dress an on-screen debut, transforming the sombre garment into an erotically charged sartorial statement worn by women the world over. The film turned Bow into a major Hollywood icon (and, arguably, America’s first sex symbol) while the black dress became an emblem of provocation in itself. It has played a multifacted role in cinema ever since.

Last month one of its greatest purveyors, French actress Mireille Darc, passed away at the age of 79. Known for her shock of bleach blonde hair, Darc was nicknamed “the grasshopper” for her famously long legs. The high-neck, black velvet dress that she wore in Yves Robert’s 1972 The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe (Le Grand Blond avec une chaussure noire) was designed by Guy Laroche, its towering floor-length shape highlighting her statuesque frame. This garment has since become one of the most renowned in cinematic history for its cut-out back, which revealed a risqué hint of Darc’s intergluteal cleft. In celebration of her, we chronicle the sexiest LBD moments in film.

1. Mireille Darc in Le Grand Blond avec Une Chaussure Noire, 1972

The 1972 French comedy chronicles the trials and tribulations of François Perrin, a hapless musician masquerading as a spy. Mireille Darc plays Christine, the film’s femme fatale, and top agent in France’s Counter-Espionage department. During the scene in which the famous Guy Laroche-designed gown makes its appearance, Christine greets François at the door in what appears to be a rather demure ensemble. Upon turning around, he is startled to realise that the dress is, infact, entirely backless, to the extent that her buttock clevage is visible – a pre-cursor to the Alexander McQueen bumster if ever there was one. The dress is now housed in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and remains one of the most iconic LBDs in cinematic history.

2. Rita Hayworth in Gilda, 1946

The strapless satin dress that Rita Hayworth’s Gilda wears in the 1946 film of the same name, during her striptease rendition of Put the Blame on Mame, was created by costume designer Jean Louis to accentuate the starlet’s voluptuous figure (she had only just given birth to her daughter Rebecca, fathered by Orson Welles). Louis said of his design: “It was the most famous dress I ever made. Everybody wonders how that dress can stay on her while she sings and dances... well, inside there was a harness like you put on a horse. We put grosgrain under the bust with darts and three stays, one in the centre, two on the sides. Then we moulded plastic softened over a gas flame and shaped around the top of the dress. No matter how she moved, the dress did not fall down.” In reality, Hayworth was a shy introvert, yet Gilda rendered the actress a pin-up poster girl. Later in during her career she would famously state: “Men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me.”

3. Grace Jones in Boomerang, 1992

In Boomerang, Grace Jones was cast as Helen Strangé in a parody of the singer herself. Director Reginald Hudlin said of Jones’ work ethic that “she was always 100% committed, and would do the absolute craziest thing at any given time. She was absolutely perfect for the role. It was written for her, and she came in very humble, very sweet.” Murphy portrays Marcus Graham, a chauvinistic advertising executive who meets his match when Strangé propositions him over the table at dinner. Wearing an off-the-shoulder black dress and collarbone skimming earrings, a headscarf-clad Jones gets straight to the point by asking “so... when are we gonna fuck?”

4. Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, 1986

Inspired by Bobby Vinton’s 60s ballad Blue Velvet, David Lynch directed his 1983 neo-noir as a highly personal project, exploring themes of sex, violence and the subconcious through the auteur’s unique brand of surrealism. Kyle MacLachlan plays college student Jeffrey Beaumont, who endeavours to solve the mystery of a severed ear discovered amongst the white picket fences of his all-American hometown. During his search for answers, he encounters nightclub singer Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini), an unsubtly Freudian character tapping into Beaumont’s oedipal desires. Naturally, costume designer Patricia Norris chose to dress Rossellini in a low-cut, lacy LBD for the occasion when she seductively performs a rendition of the film’s titular song before a flustered Jeffrey. 

5. Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, 1960

Wearing a kitten as a hat, and a black evening gown cut to reveal the entirety of her legs and highlight the shelf of an ample bosom, Anita Ekberg is the ultimate on-screen siren in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, luring journalist Marcello Rubini to dance with her in Rome’s Trevi Fountain. The historic scene was shot during a cold winter in Italy, and actor Marcello Mastroianni was forced to wear a wetsuit under his clothing and ply himself with vodka to withstand the freezing temperatures. Ekberg, however, took the near-hypothermia in her stride. Fellini claimed that Cristóbal Balenciaga’s sack dress silhoutte inspired the film, which won the Academy Award for best costumes in 1962, but was also censored by the vatican for its depiction of promiscuity, casual sex and suicide. 

6. Kim Basinger in 9½ Weeks, 1986

Before Fifty Shades of Grey, there was 9½ Weeks. The 80s erotic drama stars Kim Basinger in the role of Elizabeth McGraw, a New York gallerist who enters into a volatile sexual relationship with Wall Street banker John Gray (played by a devastatingly attractive Mickey Rourke). John entices Elizabeth by showering her with gifts and attention, even taking her to pick out clothes at the Comme des Garçons store in Manhattan. The seduction process cumulates in several sex scenes involving food, water and a shadowy strip tease against a vertical blind. The dark mood of the film is mirrored in Elizabeth’s wardrobe, in which 1980s power-dressing meets with soft silhouettes in charcoal greys and biscuit beiges, set against a heavy dose of black. In the above scene, Basinger wears a batwing dress with stilettos, smoky eyes and 30 denier tights, as Rourke teases her with a riding crop.