Glimpses of a vanishing South

Times Staff Writer

NOVELIST Walker Percy described William Christenberry's art as "a poetic evocation of a haunted countryside."

The artist's muse: rural Alabama, where Christenberry was born in 1936 and where he returns, year after year, to capture the disturbing beauty of a landscape weighted by history, isolation and decay.

In photographs and paintings, tableaux and sculptural constructions, Christenberry chronicles the effects of time, man and nature on a shrinking Southern vernacular architecture: churches, houses, general stores and juke joints.

"Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry," published by Aperture this summer, surveys the work by this profoundly American artist, considered a pioneer of color photography. It complements an exhibition at Aperture Gallery in New York through Aug. 17 and another at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., through July 8, 2007.

Christenberry, an abstract expressionist who used photography as a reference for his paintings, was on a road trip in Alabama in 1971 when he snapped a wood-frame church in the out-of-the-way community of Sprott with his Brownie camera.

"When I got the snapshot back from the drugstore," Christenberry said by phone from his Washington studio, "that picture, that image, was saying something to me I really cannot to this day explain."

From that snapshot grew an iconography of idiosyncratic buildings and more: weathered signs, fetishistic "gourd" trees and derelict structures lost in a transformative suffocation of kudzu vines.

Christenberry's explorations have a darker side as well, particularly evidenced in drawings, sculptural work and dolls dealing with his abhorrence of the Ku Klux Klan. "I knew, as a Southerner who deeply cares about where he's from -- but also realizes some great, great tragedies that we've been responsible for -- that I had to find a way to come to grips with it."

The artist's first Klan collection was stolen in a studio break-in in 1979. The loss sparked a series of "dream buildings" with ominously pitched roofs and no windows or doors. Other sculptural works include "Memory" buildings inspired by the church in Sprott and emblematic "Monuments."

Acknowledging an aura of uneasy reminiscence in his work, Christenberry quotes Emily Dickinson: "Memory is a strange bell, jubilee and knell."

"As I get older," he said, "memory becomes a mighty force in what I'd like to express."

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