Kara Walker, Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might Be Guilty of Something)

What do we talk about when we talk about Kara Walker? Slavery, sex, violence, assault, injustice, treachery—and immense talent. Following her celebrated 2014 sculpture show, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” Walker has stunned her audience once again in her new exhibition, “The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!,” being presented at Chelsea’s Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Gallery.

Drawing on her reoccurring themes of slavery, racism and misogyny, Walker’s work intends to take on the world, including those who might regard themselves as her natural allies. In her artist’s statement for the gallery, she writes, “Frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.’ Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche.”

She does not seek to be loved. She may not even seek to be understood. “It’s too much…” she reveals. “…and I write this knowing full well that my right, my capacity to live in this Godforsaken country as a (proudly) raced and (urgently) gendered person is under threat by random groups of white (male) supremacist goons who flaunt a kind of patched together notion of race purity with flags and torches and impressive displays of perpetrator-as-victim sociopathy.”

Libertine Alighting the World and USA Idioms

So brutal and ugly are the characters in her ink drawings, viewers at the September 7th opening mostly stared silently. Paintings, collaged drawings and Walker’s iconic silhouette cut-outs come together on paper, displaying images of figures being lynched and chained, an arm raised in a Nazi salute and a head displayed on a platter.

In the extremely long and circus-barker-like teaser, she says, “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. 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.”

In practice, critics have reacted sympathetically. Roberta Smith in The New York Times calls her work “antic, profane, and riveting.” This exhibition, continues Smith, “reveals a crossroads in her great career and she sails right through, from strength to new strength.”

New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz says “Walker’s triumphant new show is the best art made about this country in this century,” and believes her work should “end up on permanent display in a prominent New York museum” (he proposes The MET).

Untitled, Two slaves carrying a man while a third rips out his heart

In the untitled, laser-cut steel wagon that Sikkema Jenkins has put on display in its front window, Walker shows two slaves carrying a man while a third, crouching above from a tree, rips out his heart. This is a maquette in preparation for a major Walker exhibit at Prospect New Orleans, a contemporary art triennial that will open November 18, 2017. Her installation of a riverboat calliope, to be played by MacArthur-winning jazz pianist Jason Moran, will be at Algiers Point where, beginning the 18th century, slaves were held before being sold in New Orleans.

“The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!” is on display through Oct. 14, 2017 at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 530 West 22nd St.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association. Get in touch with her @JuliaManhattan.