William Christenberry's Work Captures The Spirit Of The Old South.
By Margaret Regan
SOMETIMES THERE ARE moments that change a life forever. Back in 1960, when William Christenberry was a 24-year-old art professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, two pivotal experiences permanently altered, if not his life, at least his art. Though he'd been born in the Depression and raised in the deep South, just one generation removed from the red-earth farms of Hale County, Louisiana, Christenberry had never before seen a Ku Klux Klanner.
One night in Tuscaloosa, he did.
"There was a notice saying 'Klan Rally Tonight' in the newspaper," he said during an interview at the Center for Creative Photography, which recently opened Reconstruction: William Christenberry's Art, a major retrospective of his photographs, paintings, sculptures, constructions, architectural models and Klan works.
"I went with a friend. It was in the old courthouse. There was no evidence of Klan activity outside. My friend, who was Jewish, decided not to go in. I started up the old marble steps. I didn't see a soul. On the third floor I saw a Klansman. It was terrifying. He just moved his eyes sideways, nothing else. I was so scared I took off."
That face-to-face confrontation with the evil spawned in his native place still haunts Christenberry. A few years after the encounter, he started crafting art with Klan imagery, including a large charcoal drawing of those demonic sideways eyes. About 300 objects in all media, from silken Klan dolls stuffed and bound, to holograms of shadowy Klan figures emerging from the darkness, are gathered into Christenberry's "Klan Room." This is the disturbing, unnerving installation piece that had some local civil rights groups blasting the Center before the show even opened.
Christenberry understands the horror his Klan work sometimes generates, but on this particular afternoon the gentlemanly artist went so far as to proclaim himself a bit "testy." He was upset by the sinister photo the Tucson Citizen had printed of him the previous day--he was portrayed in semi-darkness, with a grid of shadows crisscrossing his face--to accompany a story about the flap. Nevertheless, he said he feels an obligation as an artist to confront the dark underside of the homeplaces he loves so well.
"It's important that we don't sweep this under the rug, put it in the closet. In my artist's statement I wrote that an artist should 'try to explain such strange and secret brutality.'"
But it's hurtful for an artist to have his life's work reduced to a single soundbite, as it had been on the TV news the night before. After all, the show at the Center is so enormous that it spills over into the neighboring Arizona Museum of Art. There are 153 other works of art besides the "Klan Room" in the combined show, and they are a testament to Christenberry's astonishing fluency across media, from color photography to architectural models.
In these works, the fading world of the old South is evoked in color photos of homemade gourd trees (made by country people to attract mosquito-loving birds) and Christenberry's own gourd constructions; in pictures of egg-carton crosses on graves; in constructions sheltering the real red earth of Alabama along with found signs that celebrate both Pepsi and Jesus; in big abstracted paintings of evocative southern objects; in photos that document, decade by decade, rural buildings tumbling down and becoming one with the kudzu. There's not a person to be found in all these works, but the Southerners who inhabit these places are nevertheless brought to humming life in the artist's images of the things they have touched.
And it's these pieces that bring the story back around to Christenberry's other pivotal experience of 1960. In a bookstore in Birmingham, the young artist discovered for the first time the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee's chronicle of the lives of three tenant farming families in Hale County, Alabama, the county where, coincidentally, Christenberry had spent all his childhood summers at the farms of his grandparents on both sides. The book also had extraordinary black-and-white photographs by Walker Evans taken in 1936, the year of Christenberry's birth.
"I picked up the book and I said, 'My Lord I know these people!' " Christenberry remembered. " 'They're the Tingles.' They lived 300 yards away from grandfather Smith."
Christenberry was doing abstract expressionist paintings at the time, and at first he regarded Evans' stellar photos as mere documentation for Agee's text. But that early evaluation changed and Evans became "one of the greatest influences of my life." He looked Evans up in New York in 1961, and the two became close friends until Evans' death in 1975.
"He saw something in this cornepone kid," Christenberry smiled. "Walker was the first person who wanted to see my paintings."
The pair even made a trip together back to Hale County in 1973 to take pictures, Evans' first and only return to the place that had helped make his reputation during the Depression.
In no small measure influenced by the photographer, Christenberry gradually abandoned abstract painting and turned his attention to re-creating through art the world he had known as a child. Christenberry moved away from Alabama years ago--he's a professor at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C.--but he goes back every summer to visit his parents and to submerge himself in the South. He is after a South whose particularities become universal, as in the works of the great Southern writers.
"I admire the work of Agee, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner," he said. "And I want to do visually what they were doing in books. The creative individual I most admire is the poet. I cannot get a grip on how the poet puts something in a few words and captures the essence of it."
But the greatest praise for Christenberry's work says he does something parallel: compresses a whole world into a few spare images. As the Southern writer Walker Percy put it, Christenberry's art is a "poetic evocation of a haunted countryside."
That pleases the artist, who sums up his work this way: "It's the essence of something you feel strongly about: the beauty of life overall, with a dark, bleak, evil side."
Reconstruction: William Christenberry's Art continues through June 30 at the Center for Creative Photography and the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Center hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. At 5 :30 p.m. Thursday, April 25, Thomas W. Southall, author of Walker Evans and William Christenberry: Of Time and Place, gives a free lecture. At 7 p.m. Thursday, May 2, there will be a free panel discussion called The Klan Room: Other Voices. For more information call 621-7968.
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