Of all of the artists featured in the 30 Americans exhibition, the one whose work I was most anxious to see was Kara Walker. Studying her work in class I was intrigued by her use of history, humor, and viewer implication. I was (and am) particularly interested in her exploration of Civil War-era social relationships, and the way these are represented in the ambiguous yet distinct form of the silhouette. Encountering her work in the exhibition space, however, I was decidedly underwhelmed. In the large and brightly lit room alongside a number of other, only somewhat related works, Camptown Ladies (1998) lost a considerable amount of drama, and was dangerously close to becoming an unintelligible illustration on a wall leading to the exit.
Kara Walker uses playful, storybook-like characters to dissect very serious issues of sex, slavery, and stereotyping. Her black cut paper silhouettes are life size and (often) installed in whole rooms in loosely narrative format. Together these characters interact in grotesquely comic ways. In Camptown Ladies, for example, a presumably white male jockey sits astride the shoulders of a running black woman, whipping her rear and dangling a carrot in front of her face. Further into the piece we see this same carrot sticking out of the woman’s derriere.
Walker’s use of silhouette is central to her communication of meaning and has several important effects. Chief among these is anonymity. Because the characters lack a certain amount of discernible identity (faces, races, clothing, etc.) they are essentially anonymous. This forces viewers to rely on other cues—visual and contextual as well as personal and historical—for interpretation. Walker plays on popular stereotypes and conventional modes of representation in order to communicate certain identifying qualities, such as age and gender, but the ultimate narrative is left for viewers to supply. And this has the dual effect of attracting and implicating them.
The silhouette is also significant in that it was a commonly regarded form of representation in the Antebellum Era that Walker has chosen to depict. That the figures appear in various stages of profile (a necessity in silhouette portraiture) also references the historical practice of physiognomy and the classification of peoples based on physical characteristics. By reducing the figures to mere stylized forms Walker both equalizes and estranges them, calling attention to the powerful role that stereotyping continues to play in our experience of humanity.
What is unfortunate to me about Kara Walker’s work and Camptown Ladies in particular is that its most dynamic element is also potentially its most detrimental. The whimsical presentation and shadowy figures are visually inoffensive and this has the power of drawing viewers into the gruesome narrative. It also, however, requires that viewers take on a critical perspective and spend significant time interpreting the work. On its own, I think the piece is so intriguing as to provoke deep-felt responses from romance to repulsion. However, in juxtaposition with the other 30 Americans pieces, whose form and content are perhaps more readily accessible, Camptown Ladies falls a little by the wayside.
Kara Walker, Camptown Ladies, 1998. Cut paper and adhesive on wall, 97.5" x 666". Rubell Family Collection, Miami, Florida.
*Please note: the above is in response to 30 Americans as currently exhibited at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN. My opinions are in no way associated with or representative of the Frist Center, the Rubell family, or the artists.