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Too Much for Words

The more recent the work in the show, the more likely it is to walk the dangerous plank of the purely visual. Righteous Babes, a documentary about women in rock by Pratibha Parmar screened last week at Houston's Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, presents an interesting parallel. Unlike those annoying articles in Rolling Stone and The New York Times (Extra! Extra! Women can rock!), this film seriously traces the lineage of feminism, much the way "Other Narratives" traces the development of all kinds of resistant voices. In the video, Gloria Steinem and Camille Paglia hold forth on how much the rules have changed. Early women's lib was text-based, they say, but now feminism is being communicated to young women through popular music, which means, in large part, through image. Feminist fascination with Madonna, after all, has to do with the way she's able to control and change her image at will.

Like Courtney Love singing about rape while her voluptuous woman's body is squeezed into provocative baby clothes, young black artist Kara Walker presents the contradictions and complexity of a system of oppression. Although Walker works in black paper silhouettes, her wall installations are anything but demure. In her world, Gone with the Wind has gone wild, with cutout figures in bonnets and hoop skirts suckling, fingering, lynching and otherwise violating and being violated by white masters, Uncle Toms, pickaninnies and each other under a lazy drizzling of perfectly Southern Spanish moss. With deft and graceful scissoring, Walker coaxes out the dark and dainty fantasy world of her "inner plantation," as she calls it.

Her piece at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Untitled (Milk and Bread), is more restrained than usual, yet each of its two simple motifs reappears in various vignettes until it resonates with questions about autonomy, desire and rebellion. Take the milk: A winsome black woman squeezes a drop of breast milk into a waiting jug. Women eagerly taste butter or work their churns, whose handles echo the broomsticklike penis of a white man in the distance. A child deliberately empties a milk jug onto the ground while a woman claps the back of her hand to her head, crying over what's spilled.

Walker's prowess has earned her a prime place in the '90s art pantheon, and that's gotten her in trouble. In 1997 she was included in the Whitney Biennial and received a MacArthur "genius" grant, which caused some older black artists and critics including Betye Saar and Howardina Pindell to trot out the tired whine that the white art establishment supports Walker's work because it's degrading and "mean-spirited" to African-Americans, and that's what white people like to see, a little Negro sport. This argument, that the MacArthur people's mind-set is similar to that of three thugs down in Jasper, is difficult to swallow, particularly when you consider Kerry James Marshall, whose work I was also glad to see at the CAM, and who also got a MacArthur and was in the Biennial. There's no way his paintings of practically bourgeois African-American family scenes could be construed as degrading; in fact, they're rather pointedly uplifting.

Walker's real sin, I think, is the visual power of her work, how she uses only images to communicate where many of her predecessors needed words. What's the difference, after all, between Walker's sensuous caricatures and Weems's repetition of racist jokes? Text. Walker's ambivalence -- her acknowledgment that the world of slavery, where everyone knows his or her place, can have a dangerous allure for whites and blacks alike -- mines the same rich territory as Toni Morrison's novels, and Morrison doesn't have to put up with this kind of slag. Yet where words often have the power of clarity, images have the power of ambiguity, and that's unsettling.

It's in that ambiguity, though, that complexity and possibility are acknowledged -- that Courtney Love becomes a real person rather than an icon. Neither women in rock nor artists of color have to be or communicate any one thing; if they did, they would be in an ideological prison known as political correctness. And if images of slavery are appealing, therein lies their power to transfix and teach both a young girl playing in a dark hallway outside her daddy's office, and an impatient woman who has seen too much art, standing in a cold museum.

"Other Narratives" is on view through July 4 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose, (713)284-8250, www.camh.org.

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