Discovering William Christenberry.
William Christenberry, Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama, 1994.
One of my first days in Washington, having just arrived from Tennessee, I wandered into the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I found myself surrounded by Kodak Brownie photographs of barns, country stores, Baptist churches, metal signs, family graveyards—striking reminders of the Southern landscape I’d left behind.
Starting in the 1970s, the artist William Christenberry had photographed the same places in rural Alabama year after year. In one picture, a shack with false brick siding commanded the landscape; two decades later, kudzu had swallowed it whole. Their continuity gave these images a neurotic but documentary quality. There was loss in them. There was deep and complicated love.
The photographs were accompanied by Christenberry’s sculptures of the same structures—withdrawn from nature now, miniaturized, and presented on pedestals in a haunting, idealized form. If the photographs reveled in the mortality of things, the sculptures beatified them, turning those tumbledown haunts into totems: what Christenberry, who died last week, at eighty, called “Dream Buildings,” “Southern Sculptures,” “Memory Forms.”
I was hooked. On lunch breaks from work, I returned to the show day after day, unsure as to whether I’d chanced upon a kind of homecoming or a home burial or something else, but homing in on the work all the same. What the pictures said was that the rural South was decaying. Yes, yes, the sculptures countered, but on the imaginations of its exiles the place retained an irrevocable hold.
To be sure, the South, or at least my Middle Tennessee sliver of it, had never had more of a hold on me. On the metro, between white spells of motion sickness, I was reading Randall Jarrell, who had, like me, grown up in Nashville, and who, for one reason or another, had hit the northern road.
“Turn as I please, my step is south,” Jarrell wrote in a poem called “90 North.” Before, I had taken the line as a metaphor for the inevitable letdown that attends great accomplishment—in Jarrell’s narrator’s case, reaching the North Pole—but now I wondered if he wasn’t making a more fundamental statement about home. It tugged at you, turned you around. Only once you self-consciously extracted yourself did it assert its claim. In a sense you weren’t really “from” there until you moved away.
As I blew about D.C., not yet knowing if I wanted to settle in, I found myself reaching for Christenberry’s work like an aide-mémoire. I knew those barns. They dotted the hillsides north of Nashville. I had cashed checks in those country stores, had sat in the back pews of those old churches. To be honest, I’d never thought much about them and, to be more honest, I had spent a lot of time trying to move on, and now suddenly they struck me as beautiful—as subjects deserving, even possessed, of art.
Until then, I’d regarded art as a portal to another place, a generic elsewhere. In my high school, let alone in my house, we didn’t have pictures or paintings of the South on the walls. We didn’t have many pictures or paintings at all. What we had were posters and reproductions of Paris scenes by the French impressionists—those and a few abstract expressionist prints that could have been about nowhere or everywhere and yet somehow were definitely not about anywhere I knew.
Christenberry, on the other hand, was giving me something of my own backdrop and experience. He was calling attention, to quote the poet Patrick Kavanagh, to the “backward” places, the places where “no one important ever looked.”
Coleman’s Café, Greensboro, Alabama, 1971, Brownie pigment print image, 3 3/8″ x 4 7/8″.
Even though he had lived and worked in D.C. since the early seventies, and had spent time in New York with Walker Evans before that, Christenberry had remained intimately connected to his native Hale County. With the encouragement of Evans, who had traveled to Hale County with James Agee in the 1930s to take pictures of sharecroppers for what would become the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Christenberry began making yearly pilgrimages to chronicle the ravages and renewals wrought upon his homeland by nature, migration, and time.
The intense ritualism of Christenberry’s process, the perpetual return to and revivification of the same material, extended into his most controversial work, a collection of more than four hundred Ku Klux Klan–related paintings, sculptures, textiles, and pictures he brought together under the title “The Klan Room.”
In 1960, Christenberry was walking through the Tuscaloosa County Court House when he came upon a Klansman dressed in full regalia. The man, standing guard over a Klan meeting, turned to face Christenberry, who was twenty-four at the time. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live,” Christenberry later recalled. “I immediately turned and rushed out of the building.”
I recognized that reaction. In the back office of a small business where I’d worked one summer in Nashville, I’d opened a drawer to find a knife with a KKK insignia on the handle. I recoiled at the sight of it, jerking my fingers away and backing out of the room. The knife might have been a brown recluse, a scorpion, a rattlesnake. I was scared that whatever idiocy and evil had carried such a hateful object into that office might also reside in me by virtue of my presence there, by virtue of growing up where I grew up—by virtue, more worryingly, of my humanity, which, if the knife was any signal, included a capacity for great inhumanity, too.
In 1979, the entire contents of Christenberry’s “Klan Room” were stolen from his D.C. studio, forcing him to restart the project from scratch. The culprit was never apprehended, the pieces never returned. Could it have been the work of a white-supremacist group? Had Christenberry indirectly induced the crime by creating, as some critics claimed, a troublingly ambivalent take on racial violence in the South, one that Klan sympathizers could have mistaken for approval?
Nothing, by my lights, could have been more specious. Set against the rest of Christenberry’s oeuvre, the tableau has all the force, even ferocity, of a personal, if not a cultural, exorcism. Case in point, Christenberry’s handmade Klansmen dolls. Constructed and costumed first with the help of William Eggleston’s wife, Rosa, and later with the help of the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, the finger-sized statuettes—dozens of which populate “The Klan Room”—are often posed like action figures, sometimes impaled on pins like voodoo dolls, sometimes peering out of wooden windows, sometimes standing in coffin-shaped boxes.
The pageantry employed by the Klan to dignify its devilry is here exposed as juvenile perversion. Seldom has an artist gone to such elaborate and individuated lengths (think Picasso, think de Goya) to deracinate the delusions at the dark heart of fanaticism. Christenberry was as affected by rural experience as Agee and Evans. His work could offer a solemn memorial or a prodigal embrace, yes—but when he wanted it to be, it was a wholesale repudiation of that culture, a caricature burned in effigy.
Even so, Christenberry’s “step,” as Jarrell put it, “was south.” In Washington, my own “90 North,” many miles removed from home, it was Christenberry who helped me see, appraise, reject, and reclaim that place as if for the first time. His barns and Dream Buildings, dirt roads and Memory Forms carried me straight back, made me feel known again and safe enough even as they issued an urgent call: not to do the South proud, no, nothing so provincial as that, but rather to think better and more brazenly about its radix, the very first place, no matter how backward, how beautiful, how depraved.
Drew Bratcher is a writer from Nashville.
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