Most art fans visiting the Pioneer Valley make a beeline to the Big Three: the Smith College Museum of Art, the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, or Amherst College's Mead Art Museum. If the kiddies are along, a stop at the Eric Caryle Museum is de rigueur. It may come as a shock–and no slight is intended to those other fine institutions–but the place to be for February art treasures is the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Three fine shows now grace gallery walls.
Run; don't walk, to see Direct Action Comics: Politically Engaged Graphic Novels. And make haste—it's hanging in the Herter Art Gallery and ends on February 22. Why such a short run for a show that only opened on February 2? The Herter Gallery is designed to attract students, their work, and their curation, hence the turnover is quick.UMass Comparative Literature Professor Chris Couch curates this show, along with recent UMass graduate Alex Chautin,* and I do not exaggerate when I say that it's unlikely you will see a better exhibit on graphic novels this year.
|Vonnegut, "Double Wedding"|
The current star attraction at UMass, though, is Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker's Tales of Slavery and Power, which is on display at the University Museum of Contemporary Art inside the Fine Arts Center through April 30. There are few contemporary artists that inspire as much respect and/or ire as Kara Walker (b. 1969). Hers is a no-apologies-no-punches-pulled look at slavery and its legacy. Her images are often sexualized–to make a point, says she and her admirers; to sensationalize, charge her critics. She usually paints in silhouettes, her large dark figures suggesting the tragedy, but also the hidden power lurking within black bodies. Once again, it's open to interpretation whether the silhouettes deracialize, are forms of reverse racism, are screams of black anguish, or are in-your-face displays of black rage and revenge. In the UMass exhibit, though, there's little doubt that several of Walker's images are meant to challenge white constructions of race and bury white sins. She takes on the idea that the Civil War was about preserving Union by superimposing large black bodies on woodcuts from Harper's Weekly's Pictorial History of the Civil War series. Those bodies—in arrays ranging from detached observation to immediate peril–literally change the frame through which we view the war. In essence, it's no longer a white spin on what matters.
Even more powerful are her scenes from The Emancipation Approximation, the very title suggesting she intends to challenge traditional narratives. And challenge she does. She uses the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan–in which Zeus assumed the form of a white swan to rape and impregnate the beautiful mortal Leda–but Walker's Leda is Everyblackwoman, and the master class the white swans. We see Leda being violated in various ways by whites–either directly or as voyeurs. She also hurls a potent challenge to the very essence of race. The same whites that passed anti-miscegenation laws are, in fact, the ones who made mockery of those laws–a point she makes by superimposing black heads on white swans–an "approximation" of emancipation indeed.
I don't buy the slams on Walker, but I sure can see why she makes a lot of people–black and white–nervous. She dabbles in minstrelsy and that's always a landmine-filled terrain. There is also an overt sexiness in her work that skirts the border between exploitation and appropriation. As for whites, her work is a one-woman destruction of the Lost Cause myth. Plus, it's never comfortable to revisit the sins of one's forefathers–especially when the evening news shows that Old Massah is more alive than dead.
*Alex Chautin is a former student of mine. I'm a bit biased, but I think Alex's work stands on its own and I had little part of advancing his expertise in graphic novels, though he claims I did turn him on to Industrial Workers of the World graphics. I'll take that with a, "Wow! Cool!"