Personal and Politically Charged, the Press Release for Kara Walker’s New Show Is a Work of Art All by Itself
File this press release under "must read."
The title of Kara Walker’s upcoming solo exhibition at New York’s Sikkema Jenkins & Co., even by Walker’s baroque standards, is ostentatious: “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!” But it’s the extraordinary press release for the show that has already caused a stir on social media.
The first half of the release is written in the style of an old-timey advertisement for a sideshow attraction. It reads, in part, as a critique of the blockbuster status of Walker’s previous exhibitions, such as her 2014 Creative Time installation, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.
That 35-by-75 sculpture, of a conspicuously naked black women rendered in tons and tons of white sugar, seemed to capture the cultural zeitgeist, attracting crowds and becoming an Instagram sensation during its run at an abandoned Brooklyn sugar factory.
Earlier this year, Walker told New York magazine that she was surprised to find that visitors to the exhibition were just as quick to gawk at her, when she stopped by, as at the mammoth sculpture.
That interview also hinted at Walker’s struggles with her fame. “We’re in too much of a celebrity culture,” she said, “but at least that means I can be a disappointment to others.”
Walker catapulted to fame in 1994, at the age of just 25, with her show at New York’s Drawing Center, “Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.” The exhibition introduced her signature, paper cut-outs in the style of vintage silhouettes, depicting cartoonish scenes of horror and debauchery from the Antebellum South.
Famously, that work attracted protest from artists including Betye Saar, a veteran of the Black Arts Movement whose letter condemning Walker’s work asked “Are African Americans being betrayed under the guise of art?”.
The new press release preemptively anticipates (or courts) more contemporary criticism, with a tone at once defiant and ironic:
Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media. Parents will cover the eyes of innocent children. School Teachers will reexamine their art history curricula. Prestigious Academic Societies will withdraw their support, former husbands and former lovers will recoil in abject terror. Critics will shake their heads in bemused silence. Gallery Directors will wring their hands at the sight of throngs of the gallery-curious flooding the pavement outside. The Final President of the United States will visibly wince. Empires will fall, although which ones, only time will tell.
But the text then shifts into a more personal and world-weary register in a second section, in which Walker begins by addressing the motivation for the unusual press release itself:
I don’t really feel the need to write a statement about a painting show. I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point. But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of “having a voice” or worse “being a role model.”
Read the full exhibition press release here:
“Kara Walker: Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!” is on view at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 530 West 22nd Street, New York, September 7–October 14, 2017.
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