ROOTED DEEPLY IN SOUTH
INSPIRED ART CAUGHT IN ITS VANISHING ACT
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.