- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

Static yet changing South captured over 40 years

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry” explodes with the artist’s usual obsessions: photographs and installations of pyramidal Ku Klux Klan buildings; Klansmen’s conically shaped, hooded headgear; glistening white, steepled churches; crumbling buildings; graves; and shacks overgrown with rampant vegetation.

They grab us. They’re haunting, mysterious, silent. They could be from another world.

Washingtonians became familiar with Mr. Christenberry’s work soon after he moved here in 1961, and followed his progress thereafter, especially the results of his yearly odysseys to his childhood home in Hale County, Ala. He has influenced generations of local artists as professor of drawing and painting at the Corcoran College of Art and Design since 1968.

The current Christenberry show differs from those of other years, especially when visitors start at the adjoining permanent collection of folk art that the artist curated.

“My parents were always making things, my father was a whittler,” the artist says. “As I loved vernacular, or folk, art, the Smithsonian asked me to curate both shows.”

It was a brilliant decision.

One of the prize folk works that relates to Mr. Christenberry’s otherworldly interests is James Hampton’s “Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly.”

Mr. Hampton, a janitor for the General Services Administration, secretly sculpted his visions in a hidden and abandoned garage from 1950 until his death in 1964. He centered the foil-covered throne and scattered about 180 found objects around it. He wrote the word “FEAR” above the panoramic scene.

No one knows its exact meaning.

It’s a good 30-yard sprint from the folk art display to the Christenberry gallery and the artist’s “Dream Building Ensemble” (2001), sharply pointed elements created with wood, colored wax, red soil, metal and paint. It is a perfect complement to “Throne.” Both inspire awe and fear.

A catalyst for the artist’s dream buildings was the traumatic January 1979 theft of his Klan work from his studio on Connecticut Avenue Northwest. He dreamed about the theft, and the dreams subsequently led to his construction of more than 30 buildings.

The 11 “Dream” constructions vary in height — the tallest is 10 feet — and make an impressive grouping. The wall label suggests that the attenuated spires imply a spiritual presence while the tactility of the wax connects them to the floor.

Spires do not always imply evil for the artist or refer to the KKK. They are a longtime Christian image, and Mr. Christenberry makes the best of their symbolism.

For example, the godly spires of his photographic and construction series of a Sprott, Ala., church show the towers reaching to the sky, not acting as stylized evil Klan hats.

The purity of the artist’s eye is truly amazing here, as well as in the other crumbling buildings he photographs or constructs.

Mr. Christenberry varies the proportions in several of the photographs of the Sprott church. In the 1971 work, he brings the spires up the building’s side and through some metal steeples. In another of 1990, the artist squashes the form. It’s evident he never forgets his mathematics.

Neither did the Greeks, which Mr. Christenberry alludes to in the composition of his “Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama (1983)” photograph.

“I purposely centered the building, which I first photographed in 1974,” he says.

Except for the color and materials, it could be a small Greek temple.

“The Bar-B-Q Inn,” photographed from 1971 through 1991, displays the same graceful balance, although the buildings are placed more asymmetrically.

The balanced beauty of Mr. Christenberry’s work, no matter what form it takes, sometimes hides his depiction of evil, as in the many renditions of KKK figures. For example, he encases small, blown-glass KKK dolls with satin and velvet.

Searching for depictions of good and evil in his works is just part of the fascination.

WHAT: “Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry”

WHERE: Smithsonian American Art Museum, F and Eighth streets Northwest

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. through 7 p.m. through July 8

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

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