Just inside Sikkema Jenkins, Kara Walker’s nearly twenty-foot-long mixed-medium painting Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit), all works 2017, heralded the temperament and formal characteristics of the numerous works in the rooms that followed. In this piece, Walker reiterates her trademark theme: the ravages of the antebellum South, as promulgated in tropes of unthinkable violence. A cast of characters flees an event that is not depicted but has clearly resulted in atrocities. A woman carries a corpse; a dreadfully maimed body is split over a tree stump’s branch. Collaging sumi ink-drawn fragments across a brown linen surface that undulates with thick, black oil-stick pools, Walker produced canny plays of positive and negative space. At the center of the composition, a lone man stands in knee-deep water with his arms outstretched, as if beseeching the viewer to witness the scene—perhaps, even, his own expiration in its midst.
Having emerged in the 1990s among a group of artists (Nicole Eisenman, Lisa Yuskavage, Ann Agee) unafraid of pressing historical styles to contemporary purpose, Walker understands the many ways the past can and must erupt in the present. There is an estimable legacy of representing violence in Western painting and printmaking, and Walker is not loath to quote. Goya, for instance, is present in that swamp. The broken body desecrated on the stump recalls imagery in multiple prints from his series “Disasters of War” (1810-20). The central man, meanwhile, bears the pose not only of the character in the “Disasters” print Sad Forebodings of What Is to Come but also of the title figure in Delacroix’s painting Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826)—two works that, like Walker’s, serve as doom-laden allegories of revelation and resignation. Elsewhere in the show, Walker alluded to actual historical figures—Frederick Douglass, Emmett Till.
Much has been written about the provocative press release/artist’s statement that accompanied the show. Walker has long served as a lightning rod for disapprobation, and the text—its tone part carnival barker spiel, part escaped slave broadside—seemed to reinvite it, with glee. (Take its headline: “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. Is Compelled to Present the Most Astounding and Important Painting Show of the Fall Art Show Viewing Season!”) Her once-controversial cut-paper silhouettes are still present. In a frieze of such silhouettes, Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might Be Guilty of Something), the devil spins plates, a naked girl flees through the legs of a huge male predator, and a child gobbles down a chunk of baby. More prevalent, however, is a brushy drawing style whose looseness conveys a sense of urgency. The standout of the exhibition was the large-scale drawing Christ’s Entry into Journalism, in which a pyramid of vignettes seems to tumble into the space of the viewer, moving from a lynching on a branch in the distance to the spread buttocks of a whore in the foreground. In between is a crowd of grotesques. Is Christ the lynched man, as in Christ on Golgotha? Or is he the muddy figure in the foreground, crawling along as he is scourged by a tormentor? Either way, history spills into our world and forces us to contend.
Walker has long asserted in her art that America’s original sin—slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath—conditions all subsequent US history. When, however, has this truth found more plentiful expression in art and literature or been, one hopes, more widely recognized than in this era of toppling Confederate monuments and political solidarity on the football field? One sunny September Saturday in Chelsea, most galleries were empty, but Sikkema Jenkins was crowded to the hilt. Walker may well be among the best-known artists of her generation now, proving that rectitude and politesse are best jettisoned when the times call for outrage.