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Commentary: Kara Walker at the Fort Worth Modern

YouDo (detail), Kara Walker, cut paper, 1993-94

Artist Kara Walker uses an old-fashioned art form – the black paper silhouette – in controversial ways to explore issues of power, politics and racism. Commentator Matthew Bourbon, a Denton artist, art critic and associate professor at The University of North Texas, has this review of a retrospective of Walker’s work at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Listen to the commentary from KERA-FM

For another take on the Kara Walker exhibition, see artist Brad Ford Smith’s post on the Art&Seek blog

Kara Walker made her mark upon the art world early. In 1997, at just 27, she became the youngest artist ever to receive a MacArthur “genius” grant. Since then, her work has seen its share of controversy, and she has alienated a vocal group of older generation African American artists who object to the inflammatory racial images Walker uses.

Given this history, it’s no surprise that Walker’s show at the Modern is both gorgeous and disturbing. Titled “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love,” the exhibition covers all aspects of her art including small drawings, paintings and animated films.

But Walker is best known for her masterful use of the paper silhouette. She extends and reinvents this art form, cutting paper into elegantly stylized vignettes that span 50-foot walls, or fill entire rooms. These complex reimaginings of the American South before the Civil War are a distant cry from polite silhouette portraiture popular during the same era. Instead the artist offers a justifiably nightmarish world of extreme violence, depravity and sexual frenzy.

Her art is purposefully aggressive, forcing a reckoning of the viewers’ relationship to scenes of hyperbolic abuse. Adopting blatantly stereotypical renderings of blacks and whites, Walker uses the most hateful master and servant imagery as a means to examine conflicting feelings and ideas about her own identity and perhaps ours as well. Paintings of historic events are often massive, to glorify the scenes they portray. But Walker subverts this tradition. She wants you to feel uncomfortable in front of her art; no one is left unscathed by her indictment of human cruelty and human desires.

Emancipated, and On Tour, Kara Walker, cut paper projection, 2000

Walker’s art is repulsive and at the same time visually seductive. And this contradiction is why Walker’s work speaks so effectively on the politics of power. Artists creating political work often lecture the audience with opinions about right and wrong, ethical and unethical. This type of art is mere public relations for an obvious political point of view. We, the viewers, can only agree or disagree, filing the work in its appropriate place in our moral universe.

At her best, Walker does not provide easy answers to hard questions. She constructs a complicated world where victim and persecutor flip flop and are never pinned down to one role. This shifting point of view leaves us to decipher our own sense of identity from the artist’s speculations about race, class, history, and corruption of power. Kara Walker unleashes an unsettling parade of images that are most often black and white, yet in the end, the moral problems she exposes trap us among unresolved and troubling nuances of grey.