Kara Walker: Pony tricks or Variations?

Kara Walker‘s work is rarely compared to Cindy Sherman‘s, but they share a similarity I’m not sure I like. ‘One trick pony’ is a hackneyed enough phrase, but that is what I called Cindy Sherman’s work in another post. Her images of herself in costume take on different guises, but ultimately they are all photos of Sherman as someone else. Kara Walker does not take photographs and does not use her own image, but instead takes the history of the South and gives it a modern, darker spin dealing with race and sexuality.

Walker’s body of work is more varied than Sherman’s. In her graphic depictions of gender and racial inequalities,Walker is recognized by her Victorian-style silhouettes but she has also used watercolors, video, painting, and shadow puppets. Her works range from letter sized to room sized. While often working in stark black on white, she also uses color.

In the autumn of 2007, Walker’s work not only opened in galleries in Manhattan, but she had a solo show at the Whitney and a self-curated show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seeing all her work was a treat. All the more reason why I regret drawing this comparison, but she and Sherman are both one trick ponies.

Her transgressive images of black stereotypes tell a part of Southern history that deserves to be told, but by now I think she has exhausted that combination of style and subject. By the time I had seen all of her work in its many forms and shows, I felt they were variations on a theme.

Variations on a theme are certainly a way of exploring a topic, but I’m not sure that Walker is saying something new. As I honestly enjoy her work ( and Sherman’s for that matter), maybe I’m being too harsh a judge. I just learned the value of such variations at a new play recently. On the other hand, even Beethoven stopped at 33. Perhaps a truly great artist knows when a theme has been exhausted?

2 thoughts on “Kara Walker: Pony tricks or Variations?

  1. You should see the Art21 video on Kara Walker. Personally I love her work and wouldn’t change a thing. It’s too simplifying to say her work is all the same

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