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William Christenberry: Site/Possession

From his early deKooning-esque efforts to his “high risk” drawings, William Christenberry excels as a draughtsman, attacking the surface with elegant slashes of ink or graphite that are pure unions of freedom and control. His latter works are magnificent: gorgeous, sea nettle versions of trees—emblematic symbols for him of the southern landscape.

But who are we kidding? We’re here at this Christenberry quasi-retrospective for the infamous Klan Room, positioned behind a ponderous, velvet curtain that is supposed to both protect the squeamish and set up the viewer for what lies behind. What we find on entering proves to be a weird hodgepodge of Klan-dressed dolls, (who knew there were so many more hood-options than your basic white?) photographs, constructions, and drawings. There’s even a hologram in there. By far, the most powerful thing in the room is the series of 18 drawings of Klansmen. Positioned flag-like on the wall in alternating red, white and blue, and surmounted by a neon cross, these portraits are truly scary (and beautiful). Two other works positioned outside the room, Klavern 93, a huge, strident combo of pigment, text and image that presages Basquiat by some 20 years, and a suite of small works on paper,K House, where Klan den morphs into hood in successive versions, are on a par with these.

While the whole effect is undeniably creepy and Christenberry has captured the kooky fetishy kitsch of sequins and satin that prevails wherever superstition, religion and ignorance are entrenched, it also seems a little flat. The show has been controversial in other venues, but to this viewer, admittedly a northern WASP, the dolls didn’t yank my chain. I couldn’t help thinking of church bazaars of my youth where Barbies featuring some elderly parishioner’s handiwork—usually an oddball take on contemporary fashion—were on offer along side the cookies and cakes.
Clearly, Christenberry is, or was (he last contributed to the room in 1997) obsessed with the Klan. 

The installation is a highly personal expression, and the fabrication of all the dolls and the mini-dioramas, must serve as a kind of occupational therapy used to work out the loathing and southern white man’s guilt he feels about the Klan. Albert Maysles, the great “direct cinema” filmmaker (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) was in town filming Christenberry installing the piece, adding additional cultural import to the endeavor. Still, my advice to Christenberry: stick to the drawings; lose the installation.

Artillery 2.3 (2008): 45