“This is a mess, and I’m uncomfortable,” Kat Reynolds said as she spoke before the capacity crowd at the Contemporary Art Museum on Thursday, September 22.
The panel of artists and educators – who spoke during the Critical Conversations talk presented by Critical Mass for the Visual Arts – didn’t hold back from voicing their disdain about the art that hung in the very space where the discussion was taking place.
“Putting toothpaste – that looks like semen – on her and allowing people to walk on her body … as a black woman, for me, that is not okay,” Reynolds said. “As a woman, period, for me that is not okay.”
She was referring to the “Direct Drive” exhibition by Kelley Walker that has sparked outrage among the black creative community for its depiction of images of African Americans. Walker silk-screens images from the Civil Rights Movement smeared with chocolate and centerfolds from King, an urban men’s magazine that was most popular in the early to mid-2000s, drizzled with toothpaste.
A gallery talk with Walker went off the rails on Saturday, September 17 when he was called to task regarding the intention and messages of pieces currently on display at CAM. Artist and activist Damon Davis called for a boycott of the museum immediately after his experience at the talk. Five days later, a handful of artists sat in the space and voiced their disgust.
“It made me think that people thought that there was not enough perceived power that when this work went up that the [expletive] would hit the fan – and it clearly has,” said arts educator Vanity Gee. “The question becomes, ‘How are we going to disrupt enough to keep things like this from happening over and over again?’”
CAM director Lisa Melandri was in the museum for the two-hour tongue lashing at the expense of Walker for creating the work – and CAM for hosting it.
“I’m an employee of this museum,” said Lyndon Barrois Jr., who works at CAM as a museum educator. “But I’m by no means here to defend what is taking place in this museum. I’m here as an artist who can be critical in this space.”
Some were expecting the talk to turn into some sort of direct action. It didn’t. But the panelists protested vehemently with their words.
“I think unfortunately when it comes to art it gives space for people who are bigots to celebrate or revel in images that seem to demean the value of the struggle faced by some in the United States,” said M.K. Stallings, founder of Urb ARts.
“How does that move us? What does that open up for us? It doesn’t open up much conversation if the artist is not able to speak, and his only defense is that the work speaks for itself. So do cross burnings.”
Steve Henry, director of the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York – which represents Walker – was also present.
“It’s heartbreaking to hear all of this,” Henry said during the question-and-answer segment of the panel. “I know his work intimately, and his intentions are not racist. He shut down, he did not answer the question – and it gave us all pause. I think that one of the things that we regret is that Kelley did fail at addressing issues and concerns and hurt here.”
According to the panel and the audience, CAM, Melandri and chief curator Jeffrey Uslip also failed by displaying the work.
“How did this get here?” Wendy Todd asked. “What happens when an artist makes work like this and the decision is made in order for it to get shown – and obviously without much thought as to how it would be seen and how it going to be reflected on the institution? I mean, you have to think, ‘Who’s in the room making the decisions and how did it get so far?’”
Todd received two varying answers at different points from CAM insiders.
Barrois started off with: “It’s complicated.”
He said the work was critically endorsed and fiscally supported, so he figured that it would be displayed, but he still had questions about it all the way up until the opening.
“How do we validate that the showing is constructive?” Barrois said he asked. “How do I use this as an opportunity to ask questions about the intention of the work? How do we decide whether the work is problematic?”
Jason Wilson, CAM board member and owner of Northwest Coffee Roasting Company, was proud to acknowledge being in the room when the exhibit was discussed and encouraging the institution’s decision to display Walker’s work.
“I know that everybody feels a certain way about the art. Jeffrey [Uslip] and I talked about the art weeks before it was going up, and I pushed for it to go up,” Wilson said. “I’ll stand by it, because you people are here talking about something you would never talk about.”
He received some scattered applause for his remarks, but most of the audience – including Wilson’s own wife – disagreed.
“I think this is about a deep hurt,” said Shanti Parikh, associate professor of Sociocultural Anthropology and African and African-American Studies at Washington University, who is married to Wilson. “I’m not an artist. I don’t understand what made it art. But I hear artists who reflect the community that is being represented – and I feel our community is suffering.”
Like everyone on the panel – and many in the audience – she wants the work to come down. One guest said that, if he could, he would “tear it down with his own hands right now.”
Moving beyond calling for the exhibit’s removal, Barrois, De Andrea Nichols and Victoria Donaldson, African-American administrative employees at CAM, issued a statement also calling for Uslip’s resignation.
“To provide a white male artist the entirety of the museum and include works of this nature positions the museum and the staff in implicit support and perpetuation of these social ills,” the statement read.
Barrois, Nichols and Donaldson said they were not themselves resigning, but would not perform various professional duties in support of Walker’s exhibition.
On Monday, September 26, CAM issued a statement saying that the exhibit would remain up through its scheduled run ending December 31. “The show will remain on view in its entirety, but with modifications designed to welcome dialogue and dissent,” Melandri said in the statement. “Additionally, the museum will explore further ways to engage the community in an ongoing and constructive dialogue on the issues the exhibition has raised. Finally, CAM will ensure that the exhibit is properly identified as potentially painful, so that visitors who wish to avoid particularly difficult works may do so.”
Melandri did not respond to the request for Uslip’s resignation. The three dissenting staff members remain on staff. “It was and remains my intent to allow them to dissent from within the institution,” Melandri told The American.
Kahlil Irving, a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow in fine arts at Washington University, said Walker’s work is a symptom of a broader concern.
“If you support this work, then you support white supremacy – which is a white man being able to do whatever they want without question – and that’s a problem,” Irving said. “There is a continual representation of hate towards black people.”
But Irving doesn’t support the boycott of CAM.
“I love this place,” Irving said. “I come here all the time. I love being here.”
He pointed out the museum’s diverse curatorial approach, such as presenting the work of rising contemporary art star Mark Bradford, who is African-American, among others. A year ago, Uslip also curated at CAM the first major museum show in the United States for Jamaican-born artist Hurvin Anderson.
“We don’t want to alienate. We don’t want to hate,” Irving said. “We want change. Don’t hate the space. Hate the decision.”
Gee used Mark Bradford’s words – spoken in the very room where they were sitting – as an illustration of the problem they were addressing.
“He said – and this is not a direct quote – that the black body is so political and so politicized that it walks into the room before you. Then comes your gender, and then comes your height and then whoever you are,” Gee said. “When I think about all of the outrage, it’s clearly because of what black lives have meant in this country – and this world – over the centuries.”
Henry, of the Paula Cooper Gallery that represents Kelley Walker, charged the negative reaction to the divided racial climate of St. Louis.
“Coming from New York – and the insular art world – I think we were a bit naïve about what happens here,” Henry said. “Part of the problem with the perception of the show – particularly these works – is that he, and we, should have given more context.”
The Paula Cooper Gallery was contacted by The St. Louis American, asking for a comment from Walker, on September 20. Jacob Cooper did not respond to the request for comment, but instead forwarded an essay on Walker’s work. Cooper was informed that this is the city’s black newspaper and that, give the degree of community outrage, Walker should comment to its audience.
On September 23, Cooper provided a statement from Walker to St. Louis Public Radio. Even then, he did not provide the comment to the city’s black newspaper.