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Artist’s works focus on legacy of slavery in American life

Susan Saccoccia | 10/27/2017, 6 a.m.
Black and white dominate the palette of Kara Walker, an artist whose room-size murals, sculptures, videos and works on paper ...
Murals by Kara Walker are displayed as part of the show “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. Is Compelled to Present the Most Astounding and Important Painting Show of the Fall Art Show Viewing Season!” at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. gallery in New York. Susan Saccoccia

Walker often fills her pictures with figures; but this show began with a solo portrait of a woman, the first of three on view. Rendered on linen brushed in red pigment, the small study portrays a face taut with impatience and suffering. Another, later in the show, entitled “The Laundress (is Done),” is a watercolor of a young woman slumped over with weariness.

A cast of some 80 characters populates the pivotal piece of the show, “Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” an 11-by-18-foot ink-and-collage drawing that alludes to Christ’s entry into suffering and death. Near the top, three tiny figures dangle from a tree limb, echoing the image of Christ crucified between two criminals. The middle figure is tied in a noose, like a lynch victim. Below, oblivious and unchanged, humanity goes about its bad and good business. Whirling in a gyre-like circle are assorted figures drawn from centuries of history—Klansmen, carpetbaggers, soldiers, men resembling Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass, and near the center, a black man raising his shackled hands in prayer.

Characters are usually active in Walker’s images, inflicting and bearing pain as they move in a loosely horizontal procession or rotate around a central figure. Some of these scenes call to mind the surreal paintings of humanity at its most monstrous by 16th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch.

“The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (after Delacroix, Kienholz)” roughly 10 feet by 11 feet in size, is a nightmarish revenge fantasy in which bikini-clad women and toddlers go about wreaking havoc. Its title and content recall a 1827 painting by Eugène Delacroix depicting the legendary last king of Assyria, who after learning he has been conquered, reclines in a divan and watches his subjects destroy each other. Walker also credits American artist Edward Kienholz (1927-1924), whose installations and sculptures fiercely critiqued social injustices, including racism.

Walker is steeped in the mainstream traditions of Western art, and like Chicago-based painter Kerry James Marshall, she freely incorporates these traditions to expand and deepen the story of African American life and art.

Among these traditions is the history painting, and in “The (Private) Memorial Garden of Grandison Harris,” Walker endows a former slave, Grandison Harris (1816-1911) with an ironic tribute. Owned by the Georgia Medical College, Harris robbed graves to supply the school with cadavers. After gaining his freedom, he continued the job as an employee. The 8-by-12-foot diptych, a spare composition in black, tan, grey and white, shows him going about his nightly work observed by his master and a tot with a toy bull.

In “Future Looks Bright,” an oil-and-ink drawing on an oval of linen, a turbaned woman looks out in alarm from behind a crystal ball that seems about to explode.

Another work offers a note of optimism. In “A Spectacle,” ghost-like male power figures hover over a black girl and boy and Native American girl; but with fists raised and banners flying, the children march ahead.