Church, Sprott, 1971
William Christenberry, Kudzu with Storm Cloud, near Akron, Alabama, 1981
K House, 1998-2000
William Christenberry, Foreword by Elizabeth Broun, with Essays by Walter Hopps, Andy
Grundberg, and Howard N. Fox (New York: Aperture/with the Smithsonian American Art
Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry, Smithsonian American Art Museum, July 4,
2006-July 4, 2007
William Christenberry: Photographs, 1961-2007, Aperture Gallery, July 6-August 17, 2006
Howard N. Fox, lecture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, July 22, 2006
Richard B. Woodward, “Country Roads,” New York Times Book Review, September 3, 2006
William Christenberry, lecture, UCLA Hammer Museum, November 30, 2006
On July 22, 2006—during a trip to Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 90th birthday of his father—my companion Howard lectured on the occasion of “Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Howard had also contributed an essay to the recent Aperture publication, William Christenberry. Although we intended to arrive early to meet the Christenberrys for a tour beforehand, D.C. traffic prevented him from joining them—he had to preview the sound and projection systems before his lecture—and I toured the show with Bill and Sandy without him.
He characteristically depicts in all of his art—photographs, paintings,
sculptures, drawings—the most intimate aspects of people’s daily
human existence: the doorways through which they enter and leave
in the course of their workaday routines; the windows through which
they gaze out or peer in; their front and back yards; the sheds where
they store their tools, their forgotten belongings, and maybe their
secret things; the calendars and diaries wherein they mark the passage
of time; even the humble objects used to mark their graves.
Christenberry’s depiction of this everyday Alabama world, however, often appears to be one of complete objectivity. As Fox points out, these places and objects, particularly in the mature work, are nearly all bereft of people. It is as if they are sensed only “by their absence.” The riotous force of nature, indeed, has taken over, and, in that sense—and despite the “goodness and redemption” that once existed in these places and was represented by the objects—there is a sense of total objectivity in his work. As Richard B. Woodward observed in his New York Times Book Review essay on the book, William Christenberry:
The kudzu devouring a vacant cabin in a 2004 photograph is a science
fiction monster that can turn anything into a Chia Pet. Neither good
nor evil, the vine is simply a nuisance of life in this part of the country.
Christenberry’s focus on the habitats and hangouts of the poor, blacks
and whites, is similarly nonjudgmental. These places weren’t constructed
to last for the ages and aren’t likely to be missed, except by those
who filled them for a few years or decades. Still, he treats them with
respect, charting their alterations and passings. Paying careful attention
to surroundings that would otherwise be forgotten or unremarked upon
can be its own political statement.
Accordingly, it appears, it is the attention to these places and things, the importance the artist himself has put upon them and the memories through which he has viewed them that awards any value to his subjects.
What has generally been described as the “dark side” or the “underbelly” of this world is Christenberry’s obsession with The Klan. Some photographs call up Christenberry’s personal encounters with the Klan. “The Klub” for example is a photograph of a small bar in Uniontown where, so Bill described the incident to me, he had stopped for a drink. But upon entering the building he’d gotten a strange feeling about its inhabitants, and he quickly turned to leave, observing several individuals gathering near the doorway. “It dawned on me, suddenly, the existence of the K in the word Klub. It’s a good thing I left as quickly as I’d entered the place, and my car was tagged with Tennessee license plates.” Fox relates Cristenberry’s first engagement with the Klan in 1960, when he attended, “out of curiosity,” a Klan meeting in the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse. “Or at least he planned to: ascending the stairs, Christenberry was stopped dead in his tracks by the presence of a Klansman in full regalia, whose menacing eyes glaring through the slits frightened him off in a rush down the stairs.”
For the few to whom Christenberry did reveal this secret place,
the experience was eerie, disturbing, and spellbinding. It was pure
theater. The door opened into a claustrophobic space flooded with
blood-red light and as crowded as an Egyptian tomb, stacked floor-
to-ceiling with hundreds of Klan-robed dolls and effigies of all
the Klan represented: torchlight parades, strange rituals, lynchings.
A neon cross high up on the wall presided impassively over the
silent mayhem of the room.
I recall he also had a photograph taken of a Klan march in Washington, D.C. in 1928.
A few years ago, I would have stopped this essay here, agreeing with all of the observations—observations which include comments by the artist himself—I’ve reiterated above. But this time, as I observed the various photographs, paintings, sculptures and combines while discussing with the artist and his wife the writings of James Agee and Eudora Welty (the latter with whom Bill had a long conversation in her Jackson, Mississippi house), I suddenly was struck by the fact that despite the great beauty and longing of this work, it is not representative of what one might describe as a confirmation of life. Indeed, except for a couple of early works (“Fruitstand, Sidewalk, Memphis, Tennessee” of 1966 and the beautifully formally-constructed [by accident Christenberry told me] photograph “Horses and Black Buildings, Newbern, Alabama,”), Christenberry’s art was not only “bereft of human beings” but conveys little sign of the lives connected with his subjects. Change, yes change is expressed everywhere: in image after image one witnesses the transformation of buildings through time. But in most cases, these buildings had already lost their original purposes and were left in a state of decay or, as with the iconic Sprott Church, were transformed beyond recognition before being caught in the shutter of Christenberry’s camera.
It was a good enough church from the moment the curve opened and we
saw it that I slowed a little and we kept our eyes on it. But as we came
even with it the light so held it that it shocked us with its goodness straight
through the body, so that at the same instant we said Jesus. I put on the
brakes and backed the car slowly, watching the light on the building,
until we were at the same apex, and we sat still for a couple of minutes
at least before getting out, studying in arrest what had hit us so hard as
we slowed past its perpendicular. (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men).
If Agee’s church—not far away, according to Christenberry, from Sprott Church—is all aglow with “goodness,” Christenberry’s 1981 photo is set against a dark stand of woods. No doubt, if Christenberry had photographed only that image, it might also be said to represent “goodness straight through the body”; but in the repeated images—whether reconstructed as sculpture or revisited as in the truncated 1990 photograph—we ultimately see this structure as a strangely lonely and isolated thing. In the 1974-75 sculpture, wherein the church is represented as being set up on blocks and the stairway is presented without railings so that one might almost fear to enter—particularly in its photographic reproduction in the book, but also in its actual dramatically lit position of isolation in the show—Christenberry’s memory church resembles less a site which might elicit a cry of “Jesus” than an image out of a lonely Edward Hopper landscape. Whereas Agee’s church seems to call up “God’s mask and wooden skull and home” standing “empty in the meditation of the sun,” Christenberry’s “house of God” calls up something like a burial tomb, topped with majesty of two Klan like reverse V-shaped figures. The later truncated version looks more like the “Red Building in Forest” hut, the latter with a door so uninviting to entry that it matches the bricklike surface of the rest of the structure. It is no accident that the most recent “Sprott Church” is covered, like Poe’s famed house, in wax.
Los Angeles, September 4, 2006
December 1, 2006
Reprinted from The Green Integer Review, No. 7 (January 2007).