Silhouettes, Relieved: On Kara Walker's New Drawings
After viewing Kara Walker’s new drawings more than a decade after her widely acclaimed silhouette tableaux first received attention in the late ’90s, I can’t help but to think of all of the pressure. There is the pressure of progression—a question of how Walker can continue to advance upon work that captivated the contemporary art world years ago, work that resulted in a MacArthur “genius grant” no less. I wonder how a person could create under the demands of a massive renown such as hers, knowing the high expectations that trail excellence. But when I think of the pressure of Kara Walker, I am not only thinking of the burden of prior brilliance, but also of a near physical heaviness.
Walker’s work is nothing if not weighty. Broaching topics of race, sex, degradation and excess in rich and complicated, often tortured ways, her tableaux can be exhausting in its exhaustive engagement of history and its fantasies. Whole worlds are compressed into inches of paper and the figures’ burdens bring you right down with them, enacting a near gravitational pull on the viewer’s attention. Her materials are implicated in this weighing down of viewership. The spectacle of Walker’s careful Black paper figures on expansive white walls is a force, even as these paper scenes are physically flimsy in comparison to their structured canvas. Against their solid white wall background, Walker’s Black paper persons are hyper-present.
It is because of its boldness that Walker’s tableaux may appear to be factual. Though the content of these figures’ interactions are unclear, the simplicity of their renderings—their basal colors, their clear, exacting cuts—translates into a kind of certainty. Even as Walker’s silhouettes insist on their ambiguity, the clarity in her craftsmanship creates a look of definitive realism. The viewer is convinced that the silhouettes exist in reality—and to me, this is the expected outcome. With such an intense visual gravitas, how could you not believe you were on Earth?
For Walker then, a move from her silhouettes is difficult in that it is a turn from definitude. If the answers are already here, solidified in paper, then how much room is there to further a truth? I think that the brilliance in Walker’s new work is that the advancement of her subjects is not so much a linear progression, as it is an outward one. Kara Walker’s new drawings are an act of dissipation.
There is a literal thinning of the material in Walker’s new pieces—drawing replaces cuts, pencil replaces paper, paper replaces wall. In this lightening of materials, Walker’s sketches finely capture the imagined spaces in which Walker’s worlds exist. In Urban Relocator, the mysterious, ghost-like, yet ostensibly racially Black figure is disorienting because of its layered countenance, bizarre because the figure appears to exist in multiple dimensions contemporaneously.
But while Walker’s silhouettes, such as Slavery! Slavery! are also ambiguous, pencil permits not only a metaphoric, but also a physical portrayal of this gray space. In these drawings, white and Black colors don’t contrast one another as they do in her silhouettes. Here, white bleeds into Black, their color separations smudged. In Urban Relocator, a lifting of a white robe reveals a Black body underneath—and still the figures partially penciled, one-dimensional hands lend the appearance of shadow. At the ground, pitch Black toes fade to white heels.
Through graphite, Walker depicts an imaginary shadow world lacking an equivalent in a medium that renders all figures monochromatic and flat. The boundaries of the real and the imagined, Black and white, desire and repulsion, are not defined by scissors but by pencil sketches. Perhaps the drawings can pierce more deeply into a viewer’s consciousness because they are stealthier than her silhouettes, more of a whisper than an exclamation (and indeed her exclamatory punctuated titles are nowhere to be found in the show). Recalling the attacks on Walker in the past for her allegedly “degrading images of Black persons,” it would appear that a work like Urban Relocator is just cartoonish enough to evade this kind of admonition.
And yet, with Walker’s new drawings, she has not left behind this world altogether. Even as Urban Relocator is phantasmic, the picking of cotton reminds us of the drawing’s historical context, regrounding us in the inescapable terrors of reality, the horrors of this very existence. A fantastical white hood must also carry its painful historical associations.
Walker’s new drawings are near ethereal, but her silhouettes, (those cuttings that brought her that much attention, and with their success, that much pressure), are not the lesser for their gravity. They’re a necessary force. There must first be a building up of pressure, a weightiness to achieve any kind of lifting. And after the release—an expanse.
— Ashley James, Communications Intern