Don Noble
1:38 pm
Mon May 21, 2007

William Christenberry's Black Belt

Wayne Flynt, in his monumental Alabama in the Twentieth Century, discusses several self-taught, outsider folk artists, the Mose T's, you might call them, but he spends time on only one professionally trained Alabama artist, the man he calls "the Vincent Van Gogh of the Black Belt," William Christenberry.

Wayne Flynt, in his monumental Alabama in the Twentieth Century, discusses several self-taught, outsider folk artists, the Mose T's, you might call them, but he spends time on only one professionally trained Alabama artist, the man he calls "the Vincent Van Gogh of the Black Belt," William Christenberry.

Christenberry, born in Tuscaloosa in November of 1936, attended Tuscaloosa High School and then entered the University of Alabama in 1954. Our art department even then was first class, emphasizing the abstract expressionism of the time but also familiarizing students with realistic drawing and painting and with Dada and surrealism.

Christenberry took the BFA in 1958 and the MA in '59, moved from abstract art to landscape and, more importantly, moved to New York City where he became acquainted with Walker Evans, who had taken the famous Hale County photos in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evans urged Christenberry to add photography to his repertoire. The young man took Evans's advice.

After some brief teaching stints, Christenberry joined the faculty of the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., in 1968 and has been there ever since.

But, as is well known, he visits Alabama and Hale County often, at least annually, and in fact spent the spring of 2005 as a Weil Fellow at Auburn University-Montgomery. This is an endowed position for "a person of distinguished achievement" in the arts and humanities. Christenberry followed writers such as Pat Conroy and Mitch Albom and the actor-director Stuart Margolin, and this volume is composed of the twenty-five pieces Christenberry chose for his exhibit at the AUM art gallery.

Of the twenty-five, seven are pen and black-ink drawings. Christenberry has a drawing of a gourd tree, two of star-shaped wreaths in a cemetery and four he calls "K House"?K is for Klan. These are vertically elongated, triangular, grotesque versions of a house, with the steeple representing the Klan hood and the windows the eyes and mouth of the Klansman under the hood. Christenberry has made literally hundreds of Klan-related pieces over the years, and even kept them in Washington, in a space he called the Klan Room which, one night, was robbed. These drawings are sinister, a little frightening, and not pretty.

Most perusers of this book will enjoy more the color plates, abstract paintings or, even more pleasing, photographs of the Hale County barns, churches, cemeteries, cars, gullies, warehouses, stores, and kudzu we have come to associate with Christenberry's work. Many of these photos are reminiscent of Walker Evans's work with one huge difference: there are no people. The structures and cars, objects crumbling and renewed, or not, seem to represent for Christenberry the essence of Alabama's Black Belt.

Several of these photos were taken with Christenberry's Brownie, the simplest, cheapest camera ever made, which must put all other owners of simple cameras into a state of acute embarrassment. Obviously no expensive fancy equipment is needed to create art. In fact, Christenberry says these are "as honest a statement as I've ever made in my work, because I wasn't thinking about making art. I was photographing things that caught my eye." Of course, he has a very good eye.

Whether the subject is a house photographed over the years, as it collapses or is covered with kudzu, or a nightmare vision inspired by the KKK, he admires the culture of his home region but looks "unforgivingly" at the region's racism.

Christenberry, like many a native son, both loves and hates the South, as did Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom! And Hale County is Christenberry's postage stamp of land, his beautiful Yoknapatawpha County, as Flynt puts it, "a complex and conflicted world that could at a moment's notice, morph into something ugly, dangerous, instructive, anguished, incomprehensible."

 

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