Kara Walker: Ring Around the Rosy at Sprüth Magers, London
Widely acknowledged as one of the most complex contemporary American painters of her generation, Kara Walker’s works offer an examination of history, power, race, desire, illuminating representations of violence and the ongoing process of American racial formation.
Her exhibition at Sprüth Magers, London, Ring Around the Rosy, brings into focus the breadth of her drawing practice, which is concurrently explored in depth in her touring museum exhibition, A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs to Be, on view at the De Pont Museum in Tilburg, The Netherlands, through July 24.
Throughout her career, paper has been central to Walker’s practice, from the cut silhouettes that brought her early renown, to her small-scale drawing series and now monumentally scaled compositions. Drawing offers the artist a place to operate and develop in a transformative medium outside the heavily European male-dominated discourse on painting.
In Ring Around the Rosy, Walker’s dynamic inquiry into gender, identity, and sexuality is brought into poignant, suspended meditation across drawings of various scales; some produced as recently as this past year further elucidate the timeliness of her perspective on the present. Tracing the historical lineages of oppression and subjugation across centuries and continents, her work questions and confronts present-day matrices of race, power, and desire in the United States.
Here, Walker presents a series of works which touch on the darker themes so prescient/critical in our current socio-cultural/political climate with titles such as Ms Rona’s Hello and The Omicron Variations. An acerbic nod to the past two years of the pandemic still felt by most, they are exemplary of the artist’s candidly dark humour/comedy.
The title of the exhibition itself is taken from the lyrics of the children’s game, “Ring around the Rosy” which is speculated to have been about the Plague, which repeatedly swept through Europe from 14th to 17th centuries, killing an estimated 75-200 million people. The eponymous drawing Ring Around the Rosy/Usher to the House of the Fall (2021) alludes to Edgar Allen Poe’s 1839 Gothic short story The Fall of the House of Usher, as well as Matisse, Blake and Bernt Notke’s medieval Danse Macabre.
Kara Walker’s spatial arrangements are reminiscent of the compositions of cycloramas — the circular panoramic paintings which allowed viewers to experience events in a fully immersive manner. Many of the drawings in the exhibitions are predicated on circular motives and indicate the cycle of racial inequality that continues to play itself out in history.
Her storytelling is relentless and the vignettes lend themselves well to creating these pictorial narratives. With contorted bodies, yonic and phallic imagery, sometimes macabare, tragicomic, or vaudevillian, Walker creates subversive implied narratives filled with the familiar content from her cut silhouettes.
Throughout the series, Kara Walker makes use of words, using violent, often vulgar, language and descriptions of actions, like in the work, The Surgical Removal of One Thing from the Other (2018/2020), where the words “Free” “Not Free”, “Trapped”, “Captured”, “Escaped”, “Followed” burst forth from the paper.
She also includes individual words, exclamations, cries, clamours, expletives, monologues, and often accusatory narratives such as in Eunich and Protégé, (2018), where she writes: “Are you an anonymous being or merely the spitting image of.” The weight of her words manifest physically across the picture plane. Walker deconstructs and reconstructs the body and every violence enforced against it.
As is emblematic of her practice, the works on view are layered with art historical references. In The Origin of the World (Juried Art Competition) (2022), Walker makes pointed reference to Gustave Courbet’s painting of the same name, while rewriting his original intent for The Painter’s Studio (1855) to feature a Black painter at the centre of the work. The artist’s muse becomes the artist, vaunted by her beret, occupying the centre of the visual tableau.