ROOTED DEEPLY IN SOUTH

IN­SPIRED ART CAUGHT IN ITS VAN­ISH­ING ACT

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Art - By Joseph Wil­liams

OX­FORD, Miss. — William Chris­ten­berry is one of the last South­ern artists still pro­duc­ing work in­spired by the folk tra­di­tions of our par­ents and grand­par­ents. De­spite its wide ac­cep­tance, all his work is drawn from the very spe­cific ge­og­ra­phy of Hale County, Ala., just south of Tuscaloosa, where he was born in 1936.

“I’m deeply in­volved in car­ing about where I’m from — the site, the place — and all of my work comes out of that place, the pos­i­tive and the neg­a­tive,” Chris­ten­berry said.

While he’s best known for his Hale County photography, Chris­ten­berry is also a sketch artist, painter and sculp­tor. Sam­ples of his works in var­i­ous me­dia are now tour­ing the coun­try in an ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled “William Chris­ten­berry: Site/Pos­ses­sion,” which is on dis­play at the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­sis­sippi Marie Buie Mu­seum in Ox­ford un­til Sept. 20.

The show of­fers a glimpse into Chris­ten­berry’s process and the pass­ing South­ern land­scapes that frame his mem­o­ries. The el­e­ments of his in­spi­ra­tion are fa­mil­iar to any South­erner: glacial kudzu, clap­board shacks, trees strung with gourds and ringed with rust­ing tools, and the vi­o­lent in­tol­er­ance of the Klan and its legacy. He ex­am­ines th­ese el­e­ments without com­pro­mise, record­ing a South he has been watch­ing ebb since his youth.

He has re­turned to Hale County from his Wash­ing­ton stu­dio ev­ery year since 1968 to pho­to­graph the same places he has al­ways pho­tographed, in­clud­ing an­tique gas sta­tions, homes and churches. “That kind of ver­nac­u­lar ar­chi­tec­ture was quite preva­lent in my youth; now you don’t see so much of it,” Chris­ten­berry said. “Those build­ings are rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing, and what we see now are cin­derblock build­ings or pre­fab build­ings.”

But there is more to his doc­u­men­ta­tion than the hum­ble places he uses as sub­jects.

“(He’s record­ing) tem­po­ral­ity, mem­ory and the way in which mem­ory im­pacts rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” said An­drea Dou­glas, Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia-based cu­ra­tor of “Site/Pos­ses­sion.”

This ef­fort is ex­em­pli­fied in “Rebel Gas Sta­tion.” The lit­tle store sits alone among some trees, its thin walls and hand-painted signs de­te­ri­o­rat­ing with each suc­ces­sive pho­to­graph, un­til at last just an empty lot marks the place where the sta­tion stood. Dis­played along­side the “Rebel Gas Sta­tion” se­ries is a sculp­ture, a small model of the store ren­dered in af­fec­tion­ate de­tail and placed atop a swath of Hale County red clay.

But Chris­ten­berry said his work is not nos­tal­gic. “I would like to em­pha­size the strong sen­ti­ment, the strong feel­ing, deep feel­ing, pro­found feel­ing for some of the beau­ti­ful things that are dis­ap­pear­ing, but I don’t linger on that.”

But he does linger on his child­hood mem­ory of a cer­tain tree in the land­scape of his fa­ther’s farm. Cal­li­graphic, ab­stract ink draw­ings of this tree fill one room in the four-room ex­hi­bi­tion. They’re “high-risk” draw­ings, each pro­duced in an hour or two in a flurry of mark-mak­ing, when one wrong stroke could ruin the whole.

Chris­ten­berry’s work be­comes more ec­cen­tric when he re­flects on dreams and dif­fi­cult emo­tions.

One se­ries of sculp­tures is in­spired by a form he en­coun­tered in a dream shortly af­ter his stu­dio was robbed in 1979. “Dream Build­ings” is a 15-foot-tall mono­lith of weath­ered, cor­ru­gated tin in a cage of stain­less steel bars. The piece’s in­dus­trial qual­i­ties are be­lied by a wooden staff strung with gourds rest­ing against the bars, a ref­er­ence to the gourd trees that dec­o­rated the Hale County farms of his youth.

The Dream Build­ings with sharply pointed roofs serve as a mild in­tro­duc­tion to Chris­ten­berry’s Ku Klux Klan art, which in­cludes the night­mar­ish “Klan Room Tableau.”

The “K-House” draw­ings are com­posed of vertical strokes of col­ored ink that to­gether re­sem­ble forests. Look closer, and some strokes con­verge at the top like hoods, with two small marks in­di­cat­ing eyes that peer from be­tween the “trees.” Th­ese ob­scured Klan fig­ures move in and out of the “K-House” draw­ings, im­ply­ing the sub­tle but deeply imbed­ded sta­tus of the Klan in Chris­ten­berry’s Hale County mem­o­ries.

Far less sub­tle is “The Klan Room Tableau.” This jug­ger­naut of Klan im­agery oc­cu­pies a room draped off from the rest of the ex­hi­bi­tion. Vis­i­tors are iso­lated in the alien­at­ing gaze of hun­dreds of Klans­men.

“I can’t find any­thing other than a ter­ri­fy­ing thing there,” Chris­ten­berry said.

This 1964 pho­to­graph is an ex­am­ple of the ru­ral ar­chi­tec­tural photography for which William Chris­ten­berry is most well known.

Left: “Klan Room Tableau” is an in­stal­la­tion com­prised of ap­prox­i­mately 300 such Klan-re­lated sculp­tures, draw­ings and pho­to­graphs. Right: Such “high-risk” ab­stract draw­ings were in­spired by the artist’s mem­o­ries of the Alabama land­scape of his youth.

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