Monday, January 21, 2008

What I've been doing since Christmas... & Kara Walker

I made pernil, or Puerto Rican pork roast, from a recipe by Mark Bittman.

I made my first apple clafouti from a recipe by Julia Child.

I made bread for the very first time from the famous Bittman/Lahey recipe that appeared in the New York Times and has been blogged about ad nauseam. And yes, it is just as fantastic as everyone says, and no, you do not need a Dutch oven to replicate the results. (I would detail my alternative workaround here but I don't want to turn this into a cooking blog.)

I started learning Greek using Rosetta Stone.

And I watched countless movies - too many and perhaps too varied to list here, but I am still listening to the lovely soundtrack from Once and re-reading Persepolis.

But lest I forget the primary reason I started this blog almost two years ago, I have been trying to see some art when I can. Last weekend I dutifully went to see Kara Walker at the Whitney Museum of Art. Walker is an artist whose career I've been following since the 1990s for the truly banal reason that we are (almost) exactly the same age. What can I say? My mother once said that the first time she ever felt old was when the President in the White House was her contemporary. In the case of Walker, the fascination for me was to see how someone who grew up in the US as my exact contemporary found her voice and its most perfect expression by exploring, almost exclusively, this country's history of slavery.

Walker, enviably, has been called a genius since her twenties (literally - she was awarded a MacArthur genius grant in 1997). I think I first became aware of her at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, when her cut-paper silhouettes were exhibited either alongside or around the same time as other African American female artists like the distinguished photographer Carrie Mae Weems. The Walker, always politically correct and ahead of its time, still had a way of compartmentalizing these artists so that your immediate reaction was "race" and not "art." Or perhaps this was a mid-1990s art-world phenomenon - the depressing suspicion that museums were exhibiting only those black artists for whom race was the central subject matter.

To that end, Kara Walker fit the bill perfectly. Her silhouettes of slaves and plantation scenes were consistently angry, poetic, and unnerving. Her choice of subject matter was unwavering and, to put it mildly, dreadful - a so-called "reclamation" of something that no one wanted. Even an older generation of black female artists - led by Betye Saar - emerged to oppose her use of imagery and stereotypes that had taken so long to recede in popular culture.

So it was with some resignation that I went to see her traveling retrospective, if that is the right term for someone so young, because I knew what to expect: An ingenious formal device, a stomach-turning subject, some hints at where she would go next, but in the end an inescapable feeling that "there's no air in here."