Sunday, November 3, 2019

William Christenberry at the Ogden Museum

Long known as a Deep South bastion of resistance to social and political change, Alabama can seem like a Quixotic caricature of lost causes. The reality is more conflicted in a place where well meaning people have struggled to adapt to changing times. Only a deeply empathetic artist could possibly convey how the region's history of racial strife intermingles with the deep soulfulness of its land and people. The late Tuscaloosa native, William Christenberry, is celebrated for works reflecting those paradoxes. This Ogden Museum retrospective shines a brilliant new light on an artist who devoted his life to exploring Alabama's -- and America's -- conflicting impulses.

With their focus on landscapes and structures that resonate Southern Americana, Christenberry's  photographs, sculptures and paintings reflect a lifelong exploration of a place where time often seemed to stand still, and where some people preferred it that way – as seen in works that embody the perpetual conflict between past and present and the uneasy ties that bind them together. His 1964 Memphis, Tennessee-inspired painting, “Beale Street,” top, melds abstraction, pop art and realism into a visually coherent cacophony where old time Southern hucksterism, creativity and repression is vividly on display. Here depictions of antique, often whimsical, hand painted signs hark to the region's folk art traditions in a composition that might look buoyant if not for the jarringly intrusive presence of figures draped in the iconic white robes and pointed hoods of the KKK. A more meditative minimalism defines “Facade of Warehouse, Newbern Alabama 1981,” above, where a crumbling geometric structure recalls a ghostly repository of memories. Alabama's unique rural minimalism defines works like his “Red Soil and Kudzu” photograph where bands of earthy colors attain a bold level of painterly abstraction. Stark minimalism reaches a crescendo in his stunning sculpture, “Dream Building (Gothic),” right, in which a white steeple-like structure mingles Gothic piety with unsettling hints of a pointed KKK hood in an iconic  reminder of how a society's spiritual aspirations can be undermined by its most misguided traditions. ~Bookhardt / Memory is a Strange Bell: The Art of William Christenberry, Through March 1, 2020, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.