Late Alabama artist’s Baltimore show includes rarely exhibited Klan Room Tableau as a response to the human capacity for hatred and violence.
Taking its name from the term used in rural agricultural communities to describe the summer period when farmers have completed their preparation of the crops and anxiously await the harvest, “Laying-by Time: Revisiting the Works of William Christenberry” is a survey of work by the renowned artist that reflects on his upbringing in Hale County, Alabama. Christenberry returned to the area each year to capture and chronicle the changing landscape in documentary style photographs that famously evoke an eerie, elegiac passage of time.
This exhibition will be on display through March 12 at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) Decker Gallery in Baltimore. Though Christenberry’s work is heavily influenced by his experiences in Alabama, the photography, paintings and sculpture featured in “Laying-by Time” transcend the region.
“Great art is a creative prism through which we can consider our personal and collective experiences,” says Kimberly Gladfelter Graham, exhibition curator and MICA Curatorial Studies faculty. “William Christenberry’s masterful work allows us to relate to an important place and time in the shaping of our American story and to consider our personal choices in its continued unfolding.”
The work on view in “Laying-by Time” explores this American story and is exemplified by the controversial and rarely exhibited Klan Room Tableau, a multimedia installation that is the artist’s response to the human capacity for hatred and violence that he believed was epitomized by the Ku Klux Klan. The installation features sketches, figurines, iconography, objects and dioramas that document the pervasiveness of the KKK in his home state.
More than a chronicle of the South’s dark history, “Laying-by Time” celebrates Southern culture while exposing its narratives of racial and social inequality as urgent and contemporary concerns of the entire country, not historical footnotes isolated to the South. “It is an exploration of the microcosm to reveal the macrocosm, the specific and personal to reflect the general and universal,” Gladfelter Graham says. “Christenberry’s work offers a window through which we can consider our experiences and a nexus at which we can gather and to contemplate our past, present and future.”
Christenberry passed away in November of 2016, right before this exhibit opened, giving it new meaning as a memorial and tribute to his work and legacy.
Photo credits, from top: First KKK Sketchbook, 1963, pencil on paper; House at Christmastime, 1993-94, Balsa wood, bass wood, pine wood, tempera, acrylic paint, cloth, Plexiglas, and red soil on a birch plywood substructure, Bebe and Crosby Kemper Collection; Klan Room Tableau, 1962-2007, collection of the artist; and Church Across Cotton Field, Pickensville, Alabama, 1973, collection of the artist.