Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hale Woodruff's Murals & Kara Walker's Critics

The 1930s was a banner decade for mural painting in America. The hardships of the Great Depression  heightened popular interest in the kinds of heroic struggles that murals often depict, and in 1938 Talladega College commissioned Hale Woodruff to paint a series illustrating decisive moments in the fight against racial oppression. The six murals at New Orleans Museum of Art, on loan from Atlanta's High Museum, are among his most iconic, but it helps to see them in person; his Mutiny on the Amistad, above, portraying an uprising on a ship carrying slaves to a Cuban sugar plantation in 1839, is strikingly more powerful than any reproduction can convey. Others show the mutineers on trial after their escape to New York and their eventual repatriation to Africa after the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Painted in a romantic realist style, Woodruff's work endures because it eloquently reflects the  longing for freedom, justice and dignity that all people share. 

He was 79 when he died in 1980, so we can only wonder what he might have thought about the latest American art trends. He may have liked Antenna's recent multicultural Mixed Messages IV show where hooded Klansmen are seen fleeing an angry Godzilla, but, like many veterans of the civil rights struggle, he might have been taken aback by Kara Walker (included in the CAC's stellar 30 Americans show), whose anti-heroic views of plantation slaves (think Uncle Tom's Cabin perversely illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley), suggest a kinky kind of psychodrama where depravity reigns supreme and human dignity is all but nonexistent.

An artist of immense talent whose quiet charisma almost masks her visceral flair for publicity, Walker courts controversy with titillating spectacles, most recently A Subtlety (above), her three story tall, anatomically explicit, mammy-sphinx sculpture rendered in sugar at a defunct Domino refinery in Brooklyn. An amazing accomplishment, it is vastly more interesting than the work of many better known spectacle artists. Still, her approach raises no end of Questions about Kara: Why is it never noted that she based her sugar sphinx's body, including elongated buttocks over pigeon-toed feet, on Ernst Fuchs' twentieth century Austrian Ur-Sphinx (above left)? How surprising is it, really, that her most ardent supporters are mostly white and her most passionate critics mostly black? Why was anyone surprised that A Subtlety provoked "tasteless Instagram photos from people clearly missing the point of the work"? (Left) Were they really missing the point of the work??? Was Carol Diehl's Dirty Sugar commentary right to compare her work to Nazi porn or to suggest that her depiction of blacks as "passive victims of slavery engaged in psycho-sexual drama... reinforces the stereotypes that whites imposed on blacks to justify racism?" What was that all about? S&M has long been seen in surrealism and expressionism, but isn't her psychosexual fetishism way too personally convoluted to conflate with black history? Or is this really all about Kara? Kara Walker appears to have the makings of a great artist, but why have leading art critics stuck to press release talking points and not raised any deeper questions about her work in print? ~Bookhardt  

Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals at Talladega College, Through Sept. 14, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100

Related: Jeff Koons, The Art World's Great White Hope