- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 24, 2001

Washington artist William "Bill" Christenberry paints love songs to the South in his retrospective at the Kreeger Museum. This is nothing new. But each time the Alabama native shows the bittersweet nature of that passion, the more moving it becomes.
In "William Christenberry: Changing Landscape The Source Revisited," exhibit curator Milena Kalinovska focuses on the seamless connections between his photographs and the constructions, drawings, wall constructions, installations, sculptures, paintings, works on paper, "dream houses" and what Mr. Christenberry calls his "objects."
"I photograph, paint, draw and sculpt, and I never intended they be separated," he says. The artist expressed the same thoughts when the Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibited his early work in 1997.
This smallish retrospective of 42 works from the past 40 years gives a good overview of Mr. Christenberry's multifaceted work and emphasizes the wall constructions of the past 20 years. The dream buildings are there, naturally. The artist began them in 1979 when he dreamed of a special house after 64 Klu Klux Klan figures, part of his multipart "Klan Room" environment, were stolen from his locked studio on Connecticut Avenue NW. The art and the thieves vanished without a trace.
Mr. Christenberry explains that the Klan depictions are a large part of his oeuvre, but the tableau was too big to integrate into this show. This is unfortunate because he comes closest to expressing his rawest feelings about the South with the Klan images. An exhibition, however, of more than 700 Christenberry works in January in Cologne, Germany, will include the Klan Room.
In the Kreeger shows, visitors can see how he juxtaposes photographs in series such as "Side of Warehouse " (1978-1997), made of 16 tiny 4-inch-by-5-inch Ektachrome prints, with collages such as the "charred wall" series and an object titled "Sphere" (1979) in which he affixed old metal over an old garden finial. (The Kreeger needs to label the images in correct chronological order so viewers can follow the building's decay.)
Mr. Christenberry placed another photo series, "Store Front," near "Star Object." For this object, he turned an old Christmas tree stand upside down, bound it with aging metal strips and topped it with a gold ball.
The artist works in the tradition of dadaist Marcel Duchamp and "assemblagist" Joseph Cornell, who used "found objects" to distill memory in their work. Memory, especially childhood memories and how to preserve them, is the focus of Mr. Christenberry's art. Evoking memory is also the preoccupation of surrealist Louise Bourgeois, as shown by her 1994 Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibit "The Locus of Memory: Works 1982-1993."
Like Miss Bourgeois, Mr. Christenberry looks back to his beginnings. As a youngster, the artist's parents shipped him to his grandparents' farms in Hale County, Ala. "Remains of the Boys' Room, near Stewart, Alabama," a large color photograph, is a geometrized happy memorial to his grandfather's boyhood. The artist says that the Christenberry family had 13 children, and the six boys slept in the room.
Mr. Christenberry's "Still-Life With Okra and Peas" is a color photo of perfectly balanced horizontals and verticals showing the front porch of a country house. "I was driving by and was taken by the 'found objects' of the bottles of vegetables," he says.
Houses, symbols of shelter and love, were Mr. Christenberry's early subjects. He photographed and painted farmers' "tenant houses" from the beginning and throughout his annual summer trips back to Alabama. Falling-down buildings and churches, decorated graveyards and gourd-decorated martins' houses all fascinated him.
The "dream houses," which came after the theft of his Klan figures, are among his best-known work and deservedly so.
This is his description of their origins: "The nature of the theft was worse than the loss of the material, because the work was so meticulously removed. This work was not a part of the studio in which I worked and there was no evidence that the thieves went into the main studio. They went into this little room off the studio.
"Everything points to the fact that the thief, or thieves, took the pin hinges off the door. By some fluke in that old building, the hinges were on the exterior and they just popped the hinges with no trouble. Then, they put the hinges back on the door and left no evidence."
He characterized the effect of the theft on his family and him as "very difficult to talk about."
Two weeks later, he dreamed he was on a backcountry, red clay road in Alabama. Coming around a curve, he came upon a building with no door, no windows and a pitched roof. It was covered with the outdoor advertising signs he always loved. The dream was still clear when he woke up.
The artist has made more than 30 dream buildings since 1979. The exhibit's first large gallery holds eight remarkably varied houses dating from 1981 to 2001. The artist says he was not able to include his first one of reddish Alabama earth color, owned by a California collector. In his second, "Dream Building II" (1981), Mr. Christenberry decorated the deep-blue pitched roof with the "corrugated basswood" railroad hobbyists use for trains.
The signs he saw in the dream, such as "Prepare to Meet Thy God" and "31 cents Gas" of "Dream Building II," continue with the ones of "Now Receive Christ," "Jesus Saves" and "Coca-Cola" of "Dream Building V" in the collection of Washingtonian Robert Lehrman.
Mr. Christenberry took the dream houses in a new direction this year with the exhibit's "Dream Building Ensemble." Made of 11 vertical, sharply pointed structures that could also be Alberto Giacometti-like figures, the artist extracted the essence of the other buildings in an all-white, encaustic tableau.
The waxy surfaces combine with the intense repetition of white for a power reminiscent of the late sculptor Louise Nevelson's all-white pieces. The ensemble, with the pyramidal shaped hoods and people all dressed in white, is also the closest work in the show to Mr. Christenberry's Klan work.
The last exhibit room holds Mr. Christenberry's wall constructions that he began in 1980. The artist feels he best combines his love of painting and sculpture in these works, but most lack the punch of his other art.
The wall constructions relate to his dream of the single building covered with advertising signs. A predominant slogan was "Coca-Cola," and he extended it to several of the wall images. One is "Wall Construction III," for which the artist says he took an old Pepsi-Cola sign that he found with just a little paint left on it. "It was a huge Pepsi-Cola sign, and I collaged it over a wooden panel," he writes in the catalog.
Another is "Cola Wall," made of cut-up Coca-Cola and Pepsi signs, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer signs and his own hand Coke logo. Later, he used more paint than collage elements as in "Wall Construction With Blue Star" (1994).
The novelist Thomas Wolfe, a fellow Southerner, wrote "You Can't Go Home Again," which was published in 1940. Still, many try. Mr. Christenberry does it better than most through his art. He succeeds in pulling people into his own skin and transforming them through his experiences and art.

WHAT: "William Christenberry: Changing Landscape The Source Revisited"
WHERE: Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Road NW
WHEN: Reservations required for tours at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 10:30 a.m. Saturdays with open hours 1 to 4 p.m., through Dec. 29
TICKETS: $5 donation suggested
PHONE: 202/338-3552

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