The Contemporary Art Museum’s (CAM) Kelley Walker exhibit is embroiled in controversy. That controversy primarily stems from materials placed on photographic images of black subjects.
The problem with “Direct Drive” is not that a white artist used “black images.” The problem is not that the art is “difficult” or “controversial.” The problem with “Direct Drive” is racism.
Walker’s “Black Star Press” is based on a 1963 photograph of Birmingham police attacking civil rights protesters with dogs. The image has been rotated and covered in chocolate. “Schema” presents covers of King Magazine with “whitening toothpaste” smeared over the bodies of black women.
On Sept. 17, a Q&A was held with Walker. When queried, he was unable to explain why he created these works. According to audience members he became hostile and the discussion was shut down by Chief Curator Jeffrey Uslip.
St. Louis artist Damon Davis responded by calling for a boycott. Black museum staff called for the show’s removal and Uslip’s resignation – arguing the curator dismissed their concerns.
“What happened was the antithesis of what CAM is – a place where people who have fair and honest questions can ask them and have them answered,” said Contemporary Art Museum Director Lisa Melandri.
“Direct Drive” remains open. The museum is now providing materials critical of “Direct Drive” – and has partially walled off the gallery containing the “controversial” work.
“Black Star Press” & “schema”
There are historic crimes behind the King Magazine – “schema” – series. Walker, originally from Georgia, should know what these are – the rape of black women under slavery and Jim Crow, and the ongoing objectification of black women as exotic other. With even a cursory knowledge of this history, the work, as it is, can only be read in a narrow band. The “whitening toothpaste” smeared on the bodies of black women becomes the genetic material of white supremacy.
It is true that this would be seen differently if the art had been made by a person of color. This does not mean that white artists can’t discuss these issues. But if Walker’s gesture was meant to be critical it has failed. There is nothing that clearly demonstrates an anti-racist or feminist posture. Nothing indicates the artist values the agency of the persons depicted.
Melandri argues that the curatorial view of “schema” was that it was critical of the status quo and by making the image of Trina – the model and rapper on the magazine cover – so large her agency was asserted as she makes eye contact. But that eye contact is merely the return of the male gaze –assurance from the observed woman that she sees the man looking at her.
In “Black Star,” Walker literally occludes images of the civil rights struggle. The product is a “conceptual art” performance of post-racial mythology. “Black Star” reads as a gesture against, and erasure of, black liberation itself.
Walker claims he is interested in the reproduction of images – echoing Walter Benjamin’s famous line, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.”
But if Walker aimed to rescue the “aura” of these photographs from the digital firmament, his use of material undermines that aim. The humanity of the civil rights actors is not highlighted. The brutality of the Birmingham police is obscured. The generalization of struggle against injustice is not invoked. All is concealed.
“Kelley’s criticality of the media and the way people have been portrayed is relayed in how he alters the image,” Melandri said. “By masking the dog (in “Black Star”) he reveals the violence and terror of the white policeman and the victimization of the black protester.”
One could argue, however, that removing the tools of oppression deprives us of the historical truth. In this way the work falters when compared to a similar appropriation – Andy Warhol’s “Race Riot” (1963-1964). While there are valid criticisms to make of Warhol, he did not obliterate “Race Riot’s” social content.
Walker’s images are vandalized not valorized. But unlike most graffiti this is not self-expression in an alienated landscape. It is, however, a claim of ownership over something that belongs to someone else.
Ultimately, Walker’s posture at the Q&A must be read back into his artwork. If his intent was to be critical he did not say so. If he aimed to critique racism and sexism, he seemed oddly unconcerned with the thoughts of black artists in his audience. This removes the benefit of the doubt. We are left with what we see.
Not Taking Sides is Taking Sides
“Kelley is not telling us what to think, one way or another,” Uslip said.
And this is the problem. Images have meanings. They are contradictory, evolve and are contextual, but they are real. One does not create them agnostically. The almost daily news of police brutality and shootings makes such detachment impossible.
Art is not, in the end, an intellectual game. It is not about drinking wine with well-heeled people in white cubes. It is about the self-representation of the human race. Those who have been excluded and misrepresented – because of race, gender or social class – will not allow themselves to be permanently exiled from that self-representation.
“Kelley Walker: Direct Drive” is scheduled be at the Contemporary Art Museum, 3750 Washington Blvd., through Dec. 31.
Adam Turl is an artist and writer based in St. Louis. He was recently awarded an MFA from Washington University. He is an editor at Red Wedge.