a homespun american proust
by Douglas Messerli
James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Familes (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1941)
William Christenberry, Foreword by Elizabeth Broun, with Essays by Walter Hopps, Andy Grundberg, and Howard N. Fox (New York: Aperture/with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006)
Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry, Smithsonian American Art Museum, July 4, 2006-July 4, 2007
William Christenberry: Photographs, 1961-2007, Aperture Gallery, July 6-August 17, 2006
Howard N. Fox, lecture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, July 22, 2006
Richard B. Woodward, “Country Roads,” New York Times Book Review, September 3, 2006
William Christenberry, lecture, UCLA Hammer Museum, November 30, 2006
On July 22, 2006—during a trip to Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 90th birthday of his father—my companion Howard lectured on the occasion of “Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Howard had also contributed an essay to the recent Aperture publication, William Christenberry. Although we intended to arrive early to meet the Christenberrys for a tour beforehand, D.C. traffic prevented him from joining them—he had to preview the sound and projection systems before his lecture—and I toured the show with Bill and Sandy without him.
We had known Bill and Sandy for some years going back to our life in that city. Howard reminds me that our first dinner of spaghetti alla carbonara was shared with them at Pettitos on Connecticut Avenue. I also recall an afternoon in their home and a visit to his studio with Howard, which I will discuss later in this brief essay.
The tour of his new show was fascinating to me not only because I enjoy Christenberry’s art, of which this show presented a good selection, but also because of the artist’s own observations about his art. I recognize that most critics detest just such heavily “guided” viewings; but I love them, if only because it is at these times when one can truly get to know the artist—or at least get to know what the artist feels is most important about his art. Bill is a laconic southerner, and I don’t believe that he offered much information about his work that hasn’t previously been published, but the tone of his comments and the focus of his observations were significant, if only in his reiteration of his major concerns. What a pleasant afternoon: a guided tour by the artist followed by my friend’s lecture
It may appear, accordingly, that I might have little to observe other than sharing these pleasant memories. Given that one of Christenberry’s major concerns is the role of memory, that may not be a bad way to approach the assemblage of paintings, photographs, sculptures and mixed-media works collected in “Passing Time.” What do we remember, and why? The numerous old houses, sheds, barns, roads, churches, road signs, graves and grave-markers, and other representations of his native Hale County, Alabama—a region also explored in the photographs of Walker Evans and writings of James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—seem to call up Christenberry’s youth or a time before his youth, when these same buildings and objects, many now in decay, actively housed the activities of living beings. And in that sense, there is a bit of nostalgia in the beautiful world he presents, a beauty that, perhaps, illuminates the lives once involved with these places and things. As Walter Hopps writes in his short essay to the Aperture book: “Without its ever being maudlin or sentimental, there is a belief in human goodness and redemption—in virtue and hard work and effort, however tattered.”
Howard Fox reiterates these concerns in his essay, “An Elegiac Vision”:
He characteristically depicts in all of his art—photographs,
paintings, sculptures, drawings—the most intimate aspects
of people’s daily human existence: the doorways through
which they enter and leave in the course of their workaday
routines; the windows through which they gaze out or peer
in; their front and back yards; the sheds where they store
their tools, their forgotten belongings, and maybe their
secret things; the calendars and diaries wherein they mark
the passage of time; even the humble objects used to mark
Christenberry’s depiction of this everyday Alabama world, however, often appears to be one of complete objectivity. As Fox points out, these places and objects, particularly in the mature work, are nearly all bereft of people. It is as if they are sensed only “by their absence.” The riotous force of nature, indeed, has taken over, and, in that sense—and despite the “goodness and redemption” that once existed in these places and was represented by the objects—there is a sense of total objectivity in his work. As Richard B. Woodward observed in his New York Times Book Review essay on the book, William Christenberry:
The kudzu devouring a vacant cabin in a 2004 photograph
is a science fiction monster that can turn anything into a
Chia Pet. Neither good nor evil, the vine is simply a
nuisance of life in this part of the country. Christenberry’s
focus on the habitats and hangouts of the poor, blacks
and whites, is similarly nonjudgmental. These places weren’t
constructed to last for the ages and aren’t likely to be missed,
except by those who filled them for a few years or decades.
Still, he treats them with respect, charting their alterations
and passings. Paying careful attentions to surroundings that
would otherwise be forgotten or unremarked upon can be its
own political statement.
Accordingly, it appears, it is the attention to these places and things, the importance the artist himself has put upon them and the memories through which he has viewed them that awards any value to his subjects.
Indeed, Christenberry further extends these issues of memory with his own reconstructions of various places and objects, most notably the 1974-75 sculpture of Sprott Church (surrounded on its pedestal by “real” Alabama clay)—a “reconstruction” of the 1971 photograph, an image presented again in photographs of 1981 and 1990 (the last of which reveals the removal of the church’s two steeples) and the 2005 “memory” reconstruction (titled “Sprott Church [Memory]”) that in its ghostlike white wax-covered rendition appears like something out of a dream. Similarly, the “Green Warehouse,” photographed 18 times over a period from 1973-2004, is remembered in his 1978-79 sculptural reconstruction of the 1998 painting “Green Warehouse.” Combined with his several “Southern Monuments,” which read almost like surrealistic dreamscapes, his patchwork house, and various “dream buildings,” these works call up issues surrounding memory and the dreams memories invoke. His “Alabama Box” contains works by the artist depicting his native landscape as well as objects and even soil from that state, a work which may remind one—in the art historical context—of the dream boxes of Joseph Cornell, while recalling—from a more populist perspective—Jem Finch’s treasure box (in To Kill a Mockingbird by fellow Alabamian Harper Lee) filled with hand-carved objects found in the knot of a tree. Christenberry’s art carries with it, accordingly, a sense of totemism, an almost mystical kinship with the group of southern individuals whose structures and objects these works of art symbolize.
What has generally been described as the “dark side” or the “underbelly” of this world is Christenberry’s obsession with The Klan. Some photographs call up Christenberry’s personal encounters with the Klan. “The Klub” for example is a photograph of a small bar in Uniontown where, so Bill described the incident to me, he had stopped for a drink. But upon entering the building he’d gotten a strange feeling about its inhabitants, and he quickly turned to leave, observing several individuals gathering near the doorway. “It dawned on me, suddenly, the existence of the K in the word Klub. It’s a good thing I left as quickly as I’d entered the place, and my car was tagged with Tennessee license plates.” Fox relates Cristenberry’s first engagement with the Klan in 1960, when he attended, “out of curiosity,” a Klan meeting in the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse. “Or at least he planned to: ascending the stairs, Christenberry was stopped dead in his tracks by the presence of a Klansman in full regalia, whose menacing eyes glaring through the slits frightened him off in a rush down the stairs.”
Howard also recounts his first viewing of the mysterious “Klan Room” in Christenberry’s studio, a room separated from the rest of his studio that looked like a padlocked storage area, a room revealed to very few individuals. I was with Howard on that day in 1979:
For the few to whom Christenberry did reveal this secret
place, the experience was eerie, disturbing, and spellbinding.
It was pure theater. The door opened into a claustrophobic
space flooded with blood-red light and as crowded as an
Egyptian tomb, stacked floor-to-ceiling with hundreds of
Klan-robed dolls and effigies of all the Klan represented:
torchlight parades, strange rituals, lynchings. A neon
cross high up on the wall presided impassively over the
silent mayhem of the room.
I recall he also had a photograph taken of a Klan march in Washington, D.C. in 1928.
As Andy Grundberg reminds us in his essay in the William Christenberry volume the contents of this Klan Room were stolen, under mysterious circumstances, soon after we had seen it. I recall Bill telling Howard and me about the robbery, and him describing his distress in now having to suspect everyone to whom he’d shown it, a chosen few friends.
At a recent lecture in Los Angeles Bill revealed that during the robbery the doors to the storeroom had evidently been taken off their hinges and then replaced before the thief’s or thieves’ escape, which suggests a highly focused robbery by a very professional group or individual. It is no wonder that among the suspects were pro- or anti-Klan sympathizers.
For Christenberry this more frightening side of Alabama life is presented as another aspect of his memory, dark and horrifying memories as they are. And, although no works from the Klan Room appear in the Smithsonian American Museum Show, one eerily recognizes the same terrifying images in the reverse V-shaped images of the “Dream Building Ensemble,” a suite of eleven sculptural forms that may appear first as images similar to the Washington Monument in D.C., but quickly transform themselves before one’s eyes into terrifying all-white emblems of futurist-like cities akin to those of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or even of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Christenberry’s drawing “Study for a Dream Building,” his variously colored sculptures “Variations on a Theme, Eight Dream Buildings,” and his 2000 “Dream Building (Blue)” all reiterate the same images, thus incorporating the Klan figures into his totemistic memory as well.
A few years ago, I would have stopped this essay here, agreeing with all of the observations—observations which include comments by the artist himself—I’ve reiterated above. But this time, as I observed the various photographs, paintings, sculptures and combines while discussing with the artist and his wife the writings of James Agee and Eudora Welty (the latter with whom Bill had a long conversation in her Jackson, Mississippi house), I suddenly was struck by the fact that despite the great beauty and longing of this work, it is not representative of what one might describe as a confirmation of life. Indeed, except for a couple of early works (“Fruitstand, Sidewalk, Memphis, Tennessee” of 1966 and the beautifully formally-constructed [by accident Christenberry told me] photograph “Horses and Black Buildings, Newbern, Alabama,”), Christenberry’s art was not only “bereft of human beings” but conveys little sign of the lives connected with his subjects. Change, yes change is expressed everywhere: in image after image one witnesses the transformation of buildings through time. But in most cases, these buildings had already lost their original purposes and were left in a state of decay or, as with the iconic Sprott Church, were transformed beyond recognition before being caught in the shutter of Christenberry’s camera.
When Christenberry personally describes several of the images, he is delighted to share the stories involved with them, revealing often anecdotal and emotionally moving incidents that relate to the houses, barns, warehouses, and even signs which his art has embodied. We discover, for example, that the seemingly impenetrable “Red Building in Forest” was, in fact, originally a small, back country schoolhouse and, later, a polling location for people living in this removed location.
But without the background information, his images seem to have little to do with human use, and even the artist, before his encounters with owners and neighbors, often pondered some of these buildings’ purposes. Even without the obvious images of graves and the most recent crypt-like constructions of “Black Memory Form” of 1998, “Memory Form with Coffin” of 2003, and “Memory For (Dark Doorway)” of 2004, much of this art consists almost entirely of images of the dead. Far from being objective, “nonjudgmental” presentations of nature, the photographs of kudzu for example (such as “Kudzu Devouring Building, near Greensboro, Alabama”) are quite emotionally-charged even in their titles. This world, the world we cannot help but recognize as one with which the artist is nearly-obsessed, is literally falling apart, being destroyed not only by nature but by the forces—social and individual—that once controlled it. One need only compare the various photo-graphs and reconstru-ctions of Sprott Church with Agee’s description of an Alabama church to recognize that the vision with which Agee imbues buildings and objects is not that of Christenberry’s:
It was a good enough church from the moment the curve
opened and we saw it that I slowed a little and we kept
our eyes on it. But as we came even with it the light
so held it that it shocked us with its goodness straight
through the body, so that at the same instant we said Jesus.
I put on the brakes and backed the car slowly, watching
the light on the building, until we were at the same
apex, and we sat still for a couple of minutes at least
before getting out, studying in arrest what had hit us so
hard as we slowed past its perpendicular. (Let Us Now
Praise Famous Men).
If Agee’s church—not far away, according to Christenberry, from Sprott Church—is all aglow with “goodness,” Christenberry’s 1981 photo is set against a dark stand of woods. No doubt, if Christenberry had photographed only that image, it might also be said to represent “goodness straight through the body”; but in the repeated images—whether reconstructed as sculpture or revisited as in the truncated 1990 photograph—we ultimately see this structure as a strangely lonely and isolated thing. In the 1974-75 sculpture, wherein the church is represented as being set up on blocks and the stairway is presented without railings so that one might almost fear to enter—particularly in its photographic reproduction in the book, but also in its actual dramatically lit position of isolation in the show—Christenberry’s memory church resembles less a site which might elicit a cry of “Jesus” than an image out of a lonely Edward Hopper landscape. Whereas Agee’s church seems to call up “God’s mask and wooden skull and home” standing “empty in the meditation of the sun,” Christenberry’s “house of God” calls up something like a burial tomb, topped with majesty of two Klan like reverse V-shaped figures. The later truncated version looks more like the “Red Building in Forest” hut, the latter with a door so uninviting to entry that it matches the bricklike surface of the rest of the structure. It is no accident that the most recent “Sprott Church” is covered, like Poe’s famed house, in wax.
Again and again, not only are Christenberry’s structures devoured by kudzu but are destroyed by time and nature (such as “Fallen House, near Marion, Alabama” or the “Remains of Boys’ Room, near Stewart, Alabama”). The transformation of “Wood’s Radio-TV Service” to “The Bar-B-Q Inn” ends in the vacancy of Martin Luther King Road. Christenberry’s Alabama represents not only a world out of the past, but a world destroyed, dead, lost.
Within this context, The Klan Room and the associated images of its undeniable evil do not appear to be so much in opposition or even in juxtaposition to these other images, as they are at home in it, perhaps even partially explaining why and how that Eden fell. Here, for the first time in the artist’s oeuvre, are human beings—and grandly dressed beings at that—but instead of bringing life to this now empty world, they symbolize the brutal hate and death that were at the heart of its destruction.
Christenberry’s is a world fallen, lost, yes, but also a world once loved. And in that respect, we perceive in his obsession with his Alabama childhood—depicted not only in his own works but in some carved wooden tools from the museum’s vast folk-art collection, crafted by his own father—a sort of homespun American Proust who is bent on not simply representing his own Edenic past, but portraying a life now lost to all, an Eden wherein man was Satan himself. Perhaps such a world was destined to be destroyed and can only now be represented in the remnants that still exist or might be imagined in monuments of one’s own making, the only possibility left for redemption.
Los Angeles, September 4, 2006
December 1, 2006
Reprinted from The Green Integer Review, No. 7 (January 2007).