art news & reviews & Interviews. jeff bergman, editor

177 – Blues for Appropriation



“Blues for Appropriation: or how I chose to consider but not review a press release by and about a Kara Walker exhibition in a commercial art gallery which has been (the press release) reviewed in advance of the show and not the show itself which is available to view and I will see but not until after I send out this non-review that mentions none of the work in the show.”

Part 1
“Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom.”  The blues boogie growl comes on raspy and redlining. It took me years to realize that no production value is a production value.  John Lee Hooker’s voice, in tape form, didn’t so much as speak as it vibrated the woofer to a low stomach trembling bass tone.  I remember sitting and hearing him, Willie Dixon and Mahalia Jackson from the speakers of a Mercedes.  I don’t remember the car my father drove before I was 7 but I remember this expensive car, the one my grandfather gave my Dad the silent treatment over.  It was a diesel and had it’s own growl like a beat up washing machine doing its duty without complaint.  It would be years later that I understood the fact and circumstance of listening to Blues and Gospel in the leather seat of a German made automobile in the 1980’s.

The murky mix of 60’s Motown and pop dance tracks that came from my Mom’s car speakers was different.  Years went by before I knew the depth of Sam Cooke’s catalog, but I’d heard his voice before I could speak.  James Brown wasn’t played unless the Blues Brothers soundtrack clicked side B.   Marvin Gaye sang with Tammi Terrell about mountains too high but never did his Inner City Blues make him wanna holler.  Al Green may have sang about Love and Tenderness but Issac Hayes’ Black Moses wasn’t Walkin On By.  Bobby Womack, Shuggie Otis, Eddie Kendrick and Curtis Mayfield all came later.  For me, Time Life Motown tapes begat Soul and Funk and Sun Ra’s super out and barely orchestrated improvisational ensembles.  

That unique sound, that authentic, original growl is something I always search for in art.  I hope to recognize it when I see it.  I hope to be told a story you have never been told.

Part 2 –
In 1996 I experienced Kara Walker’s work for the first time. In the same exhibition as beautiful paintings by Kerry James Marshall I saw the ways in which these artists of color were engaging with a recent American art history.  Marshall’s work felt like Norman Rockwell with the volume turned up, yielding more signal and noise. Kara Walker only provided signal with her silhouettes. They were grotesque and affecting and authentic.  I did not know about the recent backlash against her nor did I understand my position as the viewer and my place as a shining beacon of white privilege very much the way I enjoyed listening to Mahalia Jackson in the backseat of the Mercedes.

After “A Subtlety” (the Sphinx), after the much reviewed and much-maligned work we are left with a deeply personal figure, Walker’s own and her avatar. A recent review in 4 columns by Aruna D’Souza rightly placed Kara Walkerkara-walker-press-release‘s work as a tightrope act in which the deeply personal and the spectacular try to connect.  The satirical silhouette and the authentic gestural “hand of the artist”.  The many roads that have led to this place where Walker is an art world colossus have also led to people taking selfies with the “Sugar Mamie” of her design.  Spectacle yes, Personal yes; and also a mirror held up to society and the viewer that is right there, immediately reflected.

Part 3
The bisected intent of the press release with a title like a carnival barker’s voice (spectacular) and the body content that reads as an embattled activist-artist voice (personal) explains the artist’s current place at the crossroads.

How we should figure persona into the work?  I would prefer not to.  Walkers silhouettes speak volumes about the shadow our history casts.  The #BlackLivesMatter movement exists because the same lynchings that Walker has depicted in the vernacular of the Victorian salon have been going on for generations.  To express this, Walker tells us she is tired of representing her gender and race but I believe she gives us the images rather than the words that do that work and do it beautifully and authentically.

Now, off to see the show…

-Jeff Bergman
 September 2017

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