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St. Louisans call for a boycott of CAM's newest exhibit, 'Direct Drive,' depicting black bodies

A art piece by Kelley Walker depicting a civil rights-era protest is splattered with melted dark, white, and milk chocolate.
Kelley Walker, Black Star Press | Paula Cooper Gallery
One of Walker's pieces from the Black Star Press collection depicting a rotated picture from the Birmingham protests of the civil rights movement in 1963. The splatters are melted dark, white, and milk chocolate.

Walk into the Contemporary Art Museum today and you will be greeted with brick paintings, light boxes, laptop sculptures, and a 4-by-4 chocolate disco ball. It’s Kelley Walker’s first U.S. solo museum show, Direct Drive.  

Walk deeper into the main galleries and you’ll see works from the Georgia-born artist’s past shows, most notably Black Star Press, and Schema. They include a floor-to-ceiling print of the model and rapper Trina scantily clad on the cover of KING magazine coated in digital scans of smeared toothpaste. Another uses a 1963 image of Birmingham police and dogs attacking a civil rights protester. The print is splattered with different shades of chocolate. Both works have garnered Walker, who is white, a reputation for commenting on race in America — and fierce criticism of his use of the black body.

Credit Kelley Walker, Schema | Saatchi Gallery
This 2006 print from Kelley Walker's exhibit, schema; Aquafresh plus Crest with Whitening Expressions (Trina), is presented floor-to-ceiling in one of CAM's main gallery rooms.

“Schools take Black children to this gallery, when they see these images, they are being told that their bodies, their history and their stories are disposal and always up for use by any privileged white man and institutions that feels like using them to get some press,” local interdisciplinary artist Damon Davis wrote on Facebook critiquing CAM’s new exhibit.

When Walker spoke about his work as it opened to the public last Friday, Davis did not spare words. During a Q&A session, he took Walker to task for ignoring the cultural implications of using iconic images of black people only to speak about them in terms of color theory and technology.

Davis has since called for a boycott of the exhibit, and asked CAM to take down the work and issue a formal apology to the black community.

“He uses images of us being attacked and brutalized, he uses images of black women being over sexualized, and he can’t explain why he uses these images,” Davis said by phone the day after Walker spoke.

“He rambled on and on about surface level rhetoric. At the end of the day, he’s using the images of us as controversy, the same way white people have been doing since the beginning of time. He is the epitome of white privilege,” Davis said. “He does what he wants with the images of black people, and he doesn’t have to be accountable to anybody, and he didn’t expect anyone to walk in and ask him any real questions.”

On its Facebook page, CAM posted an apology about the artist's talk:

"There were questions raised during the Q&A portion of his artist talk that were not adequately answered. We accept responsibility for the breakdown in conversation that occurred. We apologize, and acknowledge that this is especially problematic given the current climate in our region. To that end, we are reaching out to those who have raised their voices to engage in further dialogue. We respect the well-being of our community and strive to provide opportunities for all voices and perspectives to be heard."

Walker had since returned to New York, but in an interview during the installation of the exhibit, he spoke of his use of black bodies in abstract terms:

“The race issue? I think I deal with the body more so than race,” Walker said. “The body both as the mechanical or the machine, [like] the computer the record player, as well as the body being an organic material based perishable being.”

Credit Jenny Simeone | St. Louis Public Radio
Kelley Walker stands aside while Jeffrey Uslip explains parts of the exhibit to donors and media before the official opening of the exhibit.

Black Star Press and Schema are works from early 2005 and 2006. But Walker has been making a name for himself in the art world since the 1990s, with multidisciplinary exhibitions in New York, London, France, Berlin and Milan. Even with reputation for addressing race, Walker defines his art as comments on consumerism, propaganda, technology and history.

“I’m not talking about history you learned in school," he said. "My work deals in everything with the rise of modernism, and starting kind of close back to the industrial revolution and through sort of the beginning of the digital age or whatever you want to call sort of the space we’re in now.”

Direct Drive has been in the works since Jeffrey Uslip was appointed chief curator at CAM three years ago. Uslip said since he began working at the museum, he has wanted to bring Walker to the space.

The curator said he considers Walker "the right artist for St. Louis."

“He is the one contemporary artist of our generation that is thinking through history, race, identity, and their lasting evolving and rotating implications,” Uslip said at the installation. “Kelley is not telling us what to think — one way or another — what he is allowing his practice to help us think through the issues of our time.”

Perhaps in anticipation of tough critiques, CAM is co-hosting Critical Conversations: Art and the Black Body on Thursday. A panel of local artists and academics will be using Walker’s work, specifically from Schema, to start a discussion on representations of the black body in modern art and culture. 

 “You can’t separate the history of those images from your artistic creation,” Davis said. “That is not the way the world works. We are informed by the history that comes before us. I just don’t know what the CAM was thinking to bring something like that in there.”

Follow Jenny on Twitter @jnnsmn