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…in which I, a relatively privileged white that may be the artist’s own. Plessen’s work
man, touch on the no-win situation of race in is about as near to a literal translation of
America as presented by those on the very short this Deleuzian prescription as one might find
end of the stick (perhaps not market-darling today. The clotheslined shirts of Execution
Kara Walker). (2006) appear as if they have been peeled apart
from the thin, internal layers of the canvas;
Kara Walker has always been a problematic Portrait (2007) looks like a rubbing; Stage
artist for me. Her silhouettes impress me as (2006) reveals its figure through the simple
aesthetically dull; her works on paper, as application of a nine-stroke ground.
sloppy doodles; and her exaggerations of nappy-
haired piccaninnies and scrawny-dicked whites
hungry for black cock, juvenile in their
crudeness, although accurate in nailing the
white American’s fear that people of colour
have bigger dicks (witness the sexual
humiliations visited on prisoners at Abu
Ghraib). So I find this show, with its repetitive
catalogue of horrors and hatreds, vaguely
sanctimonious.
However, in putting these stereotypes of race
in front of us, Walker suggests that as a
society we have never come to terms with the
obscene legacy that the ancestors of some of
us owned those of others of us. I find that an
effective message (maybe outdated, as a black
man is now running for president), but does
the force of her work derive from the work
itself, or from the racist trauma it evokes?
Sometimes the music to her films adds more
pathos than her imagery does. I suspect this
art makes rich white people feel that they’re
overcoming racism by buying the stuff. No need
to give to the beggar with the soon-gangrenous
foot. (Although if you can afford Walker, you
don’t ride the subway.)
There must be something about the photographic
Upstairs at the Whitney, 17 paintings from image that demands this kind of mark. Plessen
Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, which also works from photographs, and his scraping
depicts the mass movement of African Americans style was developed, at least in part, as a
from south to north during the First World means of distancing his painting from what we
War, nail the scope of the racial tragedy in should call the tyranny of the mimetic. (11)
this country. Flat and almost childlike in KIRA WAGeR, Plessen’s contemporary from Norway,
their straightforwardness, they eschew anger showing at Rare, has developed a remarkably
and allow the hardship of individual lives to similar strategy, though the panels that Wager
speak for millions. That scrawny child peering works on are more sympathetic to the scrape of
up onto the empty table is hunger; the curve the palette knife than are Plessen’s canvases.
of the laundress’ shoulders as she leans down Wager works much harder to conjure the
to stir the washing is backbreaking effort. photographic images from which the paintings
But Lawrence keeps his head high; these people get their start, while Plessen’s work has swung
will die with their pride if nothing else, and closer to the pole of illustration (again, the
that hurts. This is art getting close to the shirts of Execution are exemplary here).
homeless man’s foot.
Wager has also figured a way to reflect her
Romare Bearden’s 1960s collages of African method into the larger formal structure of her
Americans in the inner city are a graphic paintings. For example, in Oslo 1.2 (2007),
precedent for Walker’s language. But what’s on the facets of Wager’s mark find their echo in
view at DC Moore is a series of works from the the grid divisions of the canvas, the ‘collaged’
late 1970s based on The Odyssey. By the time panels that divide and interrupt the scenes,
he made these, the force of Bearden’s gritty, dividing the women’s heads as if different
1960s work had ebbed into a more decorative, quadrants had been ‘exposed’ with different
fanciful style recalling the forms and rhythms lenses or were drawn from different images
of Matisse cutouts. There’s a political rub in altogether. And herein likely lies the
the work on view in that it casts Homer’s distinction between Plessen and Wager:
characters as black (which some probably were), Plessen’s method is deeply involved with the
uses African motifs and casts some characters materiality of the individual stroke and its
as modern city-dwellers. limited ability to generate legibility. The
Reviews Marathon.indd 76 7/1/08 16:50:05
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