Artist statements–the block of explanatory text which artists are expected to provide alongside their exhibitions and CVs–are already a chore, and nobody likes them. A byproduct of art world professionalization, they represent the need to explain the meaning of art to collectors and to sell autobiographical details which supposedly add value to the work. New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl has called them the “abomination from hell,” “a batch of required thinking which purports to be about the inspired doing of something, but which replaces it.”
So Kara Walker’s latest statement is a gem.
Walker–an artist who once described the bulk of her work as “plumb[ing] erratically and sometimes dangerously through American history using narrative forms and mis-readings of racist texts as the basis”–is famed for her depictions of nightmarishly sexualized and violent scenes of slavery. And with fame and big subjects, she’s been cast as the person responsible for (and celebrated and blamed for) big statements. Just a few months ago, New York Magazine published a feature titled “Kara Walker’s Next Act,” wondering how she would follow her 2014 installation in the Domino Sugar Factory featuring a 35-foot tall slave sphynx visited by 130,000 people. She didn’t know either:
She can be especially mordant in talking about the predicament of the famous black fine artist, a position she’s occupied for 23 years. “We’re in too much of a celebrity culture,” she says, “but at least that means I can be a disappointment to others.”
Well now she’s fleshed out that statement in her latest artist statement:
I don’t really feel the need to write a statement about a painting show. I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point. But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of “having a voice” or worse “being a role model.” Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche. It’s too much, and I write this knowing full well that my right, my capacity to live in this Godforsaken country as a (proudly) raced and (urgently) gendered person is under threat by random groups of white (male) supremacist goons who flaunt a kind of patched together notion of race purity with flags and torches and impressive displays of perpetrator-as-victim sociopathy. I roll my eyes, fold my arms and wait. How many ways can a person say racism is the real bread and butter of our American mythology, and in how many ways will the racists among our countrymen act out their Turner Diaries race war fantasy combination Nazi Germany and Antebellum South – states which, incidentally, lost the wars they started, and always will, precisely because there is no way those white racisms can survive the earth without the rest of us types upholding humanity’s best, keeping the motor running on civilization, being good, and preserving nature and all the stuff worth working and living for?
Anyway, this is a show of works on paper and on linen, drawn and collaged using ink, blade, glue and oil stick. These works were created over the course of the Summer of 2017 (not including the title, which was crafted in May). It’s not exhaustive, activist or comprehensive in any way.
The press release for her new exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins in New York opts for a more sarcastic circus poster tone [bolded emphasis, theirs]:
Collectors of Fine Art will Flock to see the latest Kara Walker offerings, and what is she offering but the Finest Selection of artworks by an African-American Living Woman Artist this side of the Mississippi. Modest collectors will find her prices reasonable, those of a heartier disposition will recognize Bargains! Scholars will study and debate the Historical Value and Intellectual Merits of Miss Walker’s Diversionary Tactics. Art Historians will wonder whether the work represents a Departure or a Continuum. Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media. Parents will cover the eyes of innocent children. School Teachers will reexamine their art history curricula.
Anyway. It’s not art, it’s just art.