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On Exhibit: Silhouettes of Shame


By Dan Frankel

Published Apr 1, 2008 8:00 AM

At first glance, they look like delicate images of a more genteel time. Look closely at these room-sized, black cut-out silhouettes, however, and you see horror. Disturbing images of violence, oppression and sex in the antebellum South, with nightmarish scenes of house slaves disemboweling their masters, and masters raping their slaves, packaged in deliberately overblown titles such as "Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On)" and "Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart."

This is the controversial work of artist Kara Walker and it "may not be for everyone," concedes Gary Garrels, chief curator and deputy director of exhibitions and public programs for the Hammer Museum, which on March 2 unfurled the sprawling assemblage of the 39-year-old African-American artist's work over 10,000 square feet of its temporary exhibition galleries.

"Her work deals with a lot of charged issues dealing with the history of black Americans ... race, sexuality. She digs deeply into the subconscious of submerged dreams and nightmares of our culture," Garrels adds. "But we think art is not always about reassuring people about what they already know. Art has an important role in allowing us to ask difficult questions."

Polarizing as Walker's narrative challenges and biting humor may be — Garrels says the Hammer has prepared a brochure "with a lot of text" to explain it to the bewildered — the exhibition of this New York artist who has quickly emerged on the international stage is a notable "get" for the museum. In fact, the Hammer is the only West Coast stop for the show, which originated at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center and has visited the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and New York's Whitney Museum of American Art.

Walker, however, not only has past connections to Garrels and several other Hammer curators, she was, in 1999, the first artist to be featured in the Hammer Projects series, a now-celebrated showcase for emerging artists.

Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. Hammer Museum. Through June 8. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, call (310) 433-7000 or log on to