Kara Walker at Brent Sikkema

Kara Walker, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart [Detail] (1994), cut paper on wall, approx. 180″ x 600″; courtesy Brent Sikkema Gallery

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Leafing through the press materials at the front desk of the Brent Sikkema Gallery, where an exhibition of drawings by Kara Walker is on view, I came across an interview with the artist in which she states that her work was not shocking but provocative .

The distinction between the two is, I think, pivotal. “Provocation” implies the beginning of informed debate; “shock” implies an affront and, most likely, an end to informed debate. Given that Ms. Walker is best known for cut-out paper silhouettes depicting American slavery, one is reminded of how artists are often the worst interpreters of their work. The lessons of the past always bear repeating, but what kind of lesson is Ms. Walker teaching?

Maybe there are people out there who need to be reminded that slavery is a moral abomination; if so, our society is disgraced by their presence. I doubt, however, that those same clueless folk make regular visits to Chelsea’s upscale galleries.

In other words, Ms. Walker is preaching to the choir. Provocation is beside the point: The debate is over and done with. Which is why Ms. Walker, contrary to her protestations, relies on shock to put across her art. Coprophilia, rape, bestiality, “real nigger, fake negro” and Mammy as Hamlet–Ms. Walker’s images and words, calculated to pierce the conscience, deliver only a coy, cheapjack jolt.

Ms. Walker doesn’t illuminate past injustices; she exploits them for political and artistic purposes, trivializing history in the process. And forget comparisons to Goya: Ms. Walker’s erasures, smears and collage fragments are the work of an artist who stands outside of style–she could do with some drawing lessons. She’s at her best in the one large silhouette, a medium that seems to suit her small, cruel gift.

© 2003 Mario Naves

Originally published in the July 6, 2003 edition of The New York Observer.

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