Christian Walker at Jackson Fine Arts - Atlanta, Georgia
Amy Jinkner-Lloyd/Art in America, March 1993
Christian Walker, a native of the Boston area, has been living in Atlanta since 1985, when he won the artists' book residency at Nexus Press. He's worked exclusively with black-and-white photographs for a decade. In the last few years, he has altered and manipulated his photographs, or negatives, sometimes so subtly it's impossible to see how. While his nominal subjects have ranged from classic portraits to decorative nudes to vintage family photographs, Walker's pictures have implicitly been about racism in America.
His latest series - a suite titled "Mule Tales" that consists of a dozen 20-by-16-inch gelatin silver prints - makes the racism explicit. That's partly why these may be his best works to date. But they're also stronger for being literally more painterly than the straightforward black-and-white photographs that have dominated his oeuvre to this point. These prints are overlaid so densely with varnish and cream-colored pigment that portions of them almost disappear.
Each picture is divided in half, either vertically or horizontally. One half features the color cover of a trashy paperback (Mandingo, for example), rephotographed by Walker in black and white. The other half is hand-lettered text, black on white. The texts are racial jokes, some contemporary but most from two books: Dixie Darkies: Mule Tales and Race Relationship (1942) and Negro Jokes for Intelligent White People (1963). in one print, for instance, a picture of a white man and a black man engaged in a conversation is captioned: "Q. What do you call one white man with one black man? A. A liberal." And beside an Americana-style country scene: "Q. What's the definition of a redneck? A. A guy who will sleep with a black girl but won't go to school with her."
None of the jokes are even marginally funny, in or out of their new context. The pseudo-juicy cover illustrations, normally seen in an intimate, hand-held paperback format, become even cruder when blown up to four times their intended size. Surface dots resulting from the original offset process pock the figures' superficially handsome faces. Paradoxically, the gauzy finish flowing across both pictures and words - neither of which would be effective if presented alone - highlights the generic beauty of the fictional characters and the ugliness of the jokes as much as it obscures them.
Both Walker's message and his medium are more effective in "Mule Tales" than in his previous work. His male portraits from a few years ago, for example, were standard, even bland. Later photographs of entwined black and white male nudes (1985), intended to provoke both sexual and racial tensions, came off as merely decorative. The 1990 series "Another Country" juxtaposed handcolored photographs of African-American and European males from the National Archives, but one had to read ancillary material to learn their origins, and that information only highlighted a lack of muscle in Walker's use of the images. But here, under the guise of popular culture and with a visual simplicity heretofore absent in his work, Walker has finally produced a group of substantial and gutsy artworks.