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Outlining the Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fall season crackles at the Huntington Beach Art Center, which has become the first (and all too often, only) place in the county to see challenging contemporary art. The current double bill--a group show and an installation by a much-talked-about young artist making her Southern California debut--looks at the past in fresh and meaningful ways.

Kara Walker, 27, burst onto the national scene three years ago, just months after earning her master of fine arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. Her honors this year include inclusion in the Whitney Biennial and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”

Walker, a black woman who grew up in Atlanta, brilliantly invests a genteel, old-fashioned technique with Civil War-era imagery that is at once playful and disturbing--sometimes in a sexually or scatologically explicit way. Veering between romanticized and debased images of the past, the installation--which wraps around three gallery walls--views race relations in a deliberately ambiguous light.

In “African’t"--a panorama of large silhouettes affixed to the gallery walls--Walker revisits the real and imagined activities of colonial Africa and the antebellum South. Activities range from a plantation owner’s sex act with a slave to Br’er Rabbit’s insouciant brand of havoc.

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The craft of cutting minutely detailed portrait silhouettes from black paper began in the 18th century, when upper-class sitters had themselves immortalized in this fashion. Today, silhouettes are most often seen in a debased form, as provocative images of women on truck mud flaps.

“African’t” provides a few upbeat moments (a silhouetted musical note provides the “accompaniment” to two ecstatic dancers who may be bitter caricatures of “happy darkies”) and several violent and disturbing ones. They all invoke our fractured awareness of history as well as racial cliches derived from such varied sources as pulp fiction, movies, National Geographic photographs, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Uncle Remus and the songs of Stephen Foster.

A white man roasts on a spit. An African tribeswoman in a leafy skirt and comically large shoes (formerly owned by the charbroiled explorer?) torches a tree. A white (missionary?) woman in a bonnet diddles the private parts of a black boy holding a small figure (a toy Civil War soldier? a religious icon?), while a little girl with white facial characteristics and Topsy pigtails applies a bellows to his buttocks.

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In perhaps the most shocking image--still elegantly rendered, in precisely cut sheets of black paper--a nude black woman defecates while vomiting up bones and a pith helmet. Is this a sarcastic view of cannibalistic Africans? Is it a metaphor for a black woman’s visceral disgust at being forced to swallow the notion of the “white man’s burden”? Does it invoke cannibalism as a more natural perversion than slave-owning?

Walker allows the bitter mystery to simmer, unresolved, in a work whose title expands Southern novelist Thomas Wolfe’s belief that “you can’t go home again” to encompass the African diaspora.

Using the unvarying blackness of the silhouettes, Walker underlines the uneasily shared universe of blacks and whites. Yet, in a typically contradictory move, she differentiates between slaves and their owners through details such as hair texture and the thickness of lips and noses.

A style as elemental as a cutout depends mightily on details, and Walker wields her scissors deftly, coaxing the paper into a rhythmic interplay of graceful curves: a spit of flame, a breast, a toe, a curl, a petticoat flounce. This buoyancy is Walker’s trump card, permitting close and thoughtful scrutiny of unspeakable things.

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Given Walker’s credentials and the fact that her work has yet to be shown in Los Angeles, it was a great coup for program director Tyler Stallings to bring her work to the center, where it coexists fruitfully with “Notions of the Nineteenth Century.”

Meg Linton, curator at the University Art Gallery at Cal State Long Beach, had the innovative idea of assembling contemporary work that addresses ideas and fashions of the 1800s. But the 12-artist show is uneven. A few works are painfully academic exercises in dressing up ideas as works of art. Other pieces are visually strong but only marginally related to the show’s theme.

For example, Wendy Adest’s “Parasol"--a white nylon lace umbrella that casts lacy intersecting shadow patterns on the wall--is primarily a post-feminist reinterpretation of Robert Irwin’s famous disc-shaped wall pieces of the 1960s. In her catalog essay, Linton identifies the parasol as an accouterment of 19th century feminists--true, but a bit of a stretch.

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Yet the “notions” the show deals with are worth airing, and a core group of works intriguingly explores Victorian views about such issues as domestic life, nature and photography. (Surprisingly, the Victorians’ sentimental obsession with death is not strongly represented here.)

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Hung vertically on the wall, Peter Paul Doninelli’s antique red velvet love-seat cushion piece, “te^te-a-te^te” (meaning intimate “head-to-head” chat), is a mass of uncomfortable-looking lumpy shapes. Phrenology, a form of pseudo-science that purports to judge a person’s character by feeling the bumps on his head, attracted numerous followers in the last century. The upholstery lumps humorously suggest the thwarted physicality seething beneath the surface of proper Victorian life.

M.A. Peers’ winsome painted dog portraits on scrap pieces of upholstery comment subtly on the Victorians’ middle-class domestication of Nature by combining two “pet” furnishings of 19th century domestic life. Just as the plants embroidered on the fabric are more perfectly regular than any in real life, the purebred dogs in the portraits were bred to bypass the messy process of evolution.

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“Buried Maypole,” a lushly painted canvas by Margaret Curtis (no relation to this writer), is a dreamy meditation on landscape forms--hills, water, rocks--which “dance” around the ribbon-twined pole. The Maypole long predates the 19th century, but the awe-struck, Romantic-era view of Nature’s wonders is fully apropos.

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Warren Neidich updates Edward Curtis’ condescending 19th century photographs of Native Americans as noble savages with blurry sepia-toned movie stills. Seen in their narrow repertoire of dancing, riding and dying, the Indians in “Contra-Curtis: Early American Cover-Ups” represent a similar kind of false history constructed by outsiders.

The most perfect fit of the show’s theme and its art is “The 28th Instance of June 1914, 10:50 a.m.,” a video by David McDermott and Peter McGough, who document their eccentric partnership in New York. They spent their days re-creating a genteel, turn-of-the-century lifestyle in nearly every detail, wearing period suits, listening to ragtime on a gramophone and (in lieu of a household of servants) doing their laundry in the tub with a washboard.

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The charm of the video, which includes vintage film clips and commentary by several art critics, lies in its juxtaposition of a stately, contemplative existence with the brash tempo of contemporary urban life. The duo offers a view of the past in which the innate conservatism of nostalgia is constantly undercut by a spirit of anarchy.

* “Kara Walker: African’t” and “Notions of the Nineteenth Century,” through Nov. 16. Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St. Noon-6 p.m., Tuesday-Wednesday; noon-8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; noon-4 p.m. Sunday. $3 general; $2 students, seniors. (714) 374-1650.


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