Kara Walker exhibition ‘Cut to the Quick’ at MOCA Jacksonville

I visited the Kara Walker exhibition “Cut to the Quick” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville. I have seen plenty of Walker’s work online and a few pieces in museums here and there, but to be surrounded by some 80 objects was… well, it couldn’t be called a “treat,” except for in the most purely and exclusively artistic sense.

Raw, confrontational, violent, ugly, terrible, real, true, grotesque, unsettling, chilling, nauseating, stark, candid, honest, historical, canonical, documentary, difficult, graphic, shocking, genius, American, beautiful, crude, vulgar, accusatory. Experiencing the show generated a mix of emotions and reactions.

Walker’s artwork is physical and narrative and harrowing, produced with a screaming mixture of both confidence and rage.

It makes you think and feel.

The subtlety and discretion of a Molotov cocktail; the precision of a scalpel.

Large pitch-black images silhouetted on stark white paper.

Kara Walker from the series 'Harpers Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), edition 21of35, 2005; Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-boats. Offset lithography and screenprint. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer.
Kara Walker from the series ‘Harpers Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), edition 21of35, 2005; Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-boats. Offset lithography and screenprint. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer.

Some of the images presented are so violent and horrific I didn’t even photograph them. Doing so would have felt exploitative, performed merely for shock value.

Since my perspective on art widened beyond white men following a European tradition to include Black, Indigenous and female artists, Walker has been one of my favorites. Her devotion to such gruesome subject matter reminds me of one of the scions of that traditional artistic lineage: Francisco Goya. Walker’s artwork presents contemporary audiences with a Disasters of War for our time.

Goya’s one of my favorites too. The latter years of his career was devoted to depicting human cruelty, suffering, tragedy.

Goya saw and heard tell of catastrophe around him as his native Spain was torn asunder by a series of feeble and self-serving monarchs and Napoleonic intervention. Walker’s visions come from her research into American slavery and, “an uneasy relationship with (her) own imagination” as she describes it.

What a great line!

I’ll bet Goya would describe himself in similar terms.

Walker rose to prominence in the 1990s, assaulting the art world with her exaggerated depictions of racial and gender caricatures and the Antebellum South. She hasn’t slowed down since. A recent crowing achievement was her Fons Americanus sculpture installed at Tate Modern in Britain from 2019 through 2021. It presents a searing indictment of the British Empire and colonial America’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.

A small model for the sculpture is on view in the exhibition along with works on paper – lithographs, screenprints, etchings with aquatint, drawings – and laser cut stainless steel figures and forms all drawn from the collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation. That may be the finest private collection of contemporary art “multiples” in existence. It has formed the backbone of countless museum exhibitions.

Kara Walker, African/American, edition 22 of 40, 1998. Linocut on paper. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer.
Kara Walker, African/American, edition 22 of 40, 1998. Linocut on paper. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer.

Artwork of this caliber, particularly contemporary artwork, rarely comes to Jacksonville. Walker, for my money, may be the most significant American artist since Basquiat. This show portrays a wide and thorough sweep of her career to this point. As challenging as the experience of taking this show in proves to be, it’s an opportunity not to be missed.

More artwork and installation images from the Kara Walker exhibition can be found on my Instagram page.

The exhibition will be on view through September 25, 2022.

No Comments Yet.