“Laying-by Time”: Revisiting the Works of William A. Christenberry

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on March 1, 2017
William Christenberry
Church Across Cotton Field, Pickensville, Alabama
digital print from 35 mm negative, 6 3-4- x 10- image on 11- x 14- paper
Collection of the artist

An important exhibition of works by the late William A. Christenberry continues on view through March 12th in the Decker Gallery (Fox Building) of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Baltimore.  The selection and organization of the exhibit, notable for its sensitivity to Christenberry’s subtle emotive content, is owed to curator Kimberly Gladfelter Graham.  The exhibit is well documented, without being overwhelmed by text.  A well written essay in an informative brochure accompanies the exhibit, featuring quotations from the artist who passed away late last November at age 80.  The show, having been planned months ahead of the Dec. 9th opening, became an unexpected homage to this quintessentially American artist.

Christenberry was born in the summer of 1936 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  In that same year, poet James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, were hired by Fortune Magazine to go down to Hale County, Alabama to create an essay of text and pictures that would express the character of the people on the land, part of a series they intended to publish called “The Life and Circumstances”.  They left New York by car on a mid-June afternoon to document the impoverished sharecroppers whose lives were determined by the weather and the crops.  The essay they produced, considered too “subversive” (Evans opined that Agee confessed to being “a great deal more Communist than not”) was rejected by Fortune, but Houghton-Mifflin published the work as a book in 1941 with the title Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Christenberry grew up in Greensboro, Hale County, where his family owned and worked the land.  By his own admission, Evans and Agee’s book had a profound impact on the young artist, and even on his eventual dedication to re-visiting Hale County in the summers, during the period called “laying-by”, defined by Agee as that period after the farmers had done everything they could and were forced into a period of waiting for the cotton to grow—a “terrible leisure” in the hot summer months when everything depended on “the sky, the dirt, and the cotton itself.”  The stillness that is evoked in Agee’s text becomes almost palpable in Christenberry’s photos.  You can almost hear the insects buzzing, and feel the implacable heat of the sun.

Although Hale County, its fields and domestic architecture, was his primary subject, the artist had left Alabama and lived in Washington DC for many years.  From the early 1960’s until very recently he made a yearly pilgrimage to Hale County every laying-by time where, as Graham writes, he was “both insider and outsider, intimate and stranger;” just enough removed to allow a certain objectivity and still close enough to imbue his work with an authentic empathy.  On these trips the artist used his camera, for a long time a simple Brownie camera he got as a child, and only later upgraded to a 35mm and a large format camera, to spend the time documenting the often overlooked, and most importantly, the slow changes to a single locale in the region.  Away from Alabama, the artist almost never used his camera.  Instead he would paint and make three dimensional works, including the house forms for which he is best known.

William Christenberry_GraveII_1963_oil on canvas_90_ x 123__Collection of the John & Maxine Belger Family Foundation
William Christenberry
Grave II
Oil on canvas
90 x 123
Collection of the John & Maxine Belger Family Foundation

Coming in the door of the gallery one is greeted by a bouquet of cotton plants, a crop that actually began to decline in Hale County in the 1940’s.  Directly opposite is a very large painting, part of a series of abstract works evoking local graveyards.  In the center of Grave II (1964), painted in a broad, expressionist style, the artist has included what at first looks like a bouquet.  In reference to these works, Christenberry recalled: “The first graveyard that I can remember is down the road from the Christenberry home place.  It’s an African-American graveyard in Stewart, Alabama.” In it there were wreaths made of strips of colored paper.  When it rained the wreaths began to drip their colors.  The bold brushstrokes in this painting mimic the streaming wreaths made of simple and ephemeral materials by very poor people.

William Christenberry, Lady Who Makes Egg Carton Flowers Hale County Alabama, October, 1983, digital print from 35 mm negative, 12- x 18-, Collection of the artist
William Christenberry
Lady Who Makes Egg Carton Flowers Hale County Alabama
October, 1983
digital print from 35 mm negative, 12 x 18
Collection of the artist

On the wall next to the painting in a box-frame is a cross found by the artist in a similar graveyard made of Styrofoam egg cartons and decorated with plastic flowers.  Near this is a compelling photo taken in 1983 of a Lady who Makes Egg Carton Flowers, Hale County, AL.  Sitting quietly in front of her house is a smiling woman who weaves these same plastic egg cartons into bouquets and wreaths for her churchyard.  The sense is at once both pathetic and beautiful; the sophisticated Northern viewer of 2017 might feel pity, but the image seems above such feelings.  It’s exactly this exquisite sensitivity to the fundamental value, beauty and identity of a Southern place like this that makes Christenberry’s work so compelling.

Included in the exhibit are a few of Christenberry’s photo series, a kind of protracted essay of images taken over decades in some cases.  One is of a House at Christmastime recalling an incident in 1971.  Going up to a wooden house, only partially painted, the artist was greeted by an “elderly lady” who wanted him to see her “Christmas lights;” a few lonely bulbs on a wire across the door.  She explained that the house was painted only as high as she could reach.  Christenberry continued to photograph this house until it was no longer there, wondering what became of the woman.  He memorialized the house in a three-dimensional work with the same title in 1993-4 that is also in the exhibit.

Christenberry_Bar-B-Q Inn
William Christenberry
The Bar-B-Q Inn (Woods Radio-TV Service), Greensboro, AL,
16 archival pigment prints on paper
8 x 16
Collection of the artist

A similar series is The Bar-B-Q Inn (Woods Radio-TV Service), Greensboro, AL, 1964-91. The suite of 16 archival pigment prints on 8 x 16” paper begins with a black and white photo of the wood structure store-front taken in 1964.  At that time it sported a crudely hand painted sign reading “WOODS Radio-TV service.”  By 1974, it had been transformed into the Bar-B-Q Inn, with bright red Coca-Cola signs flanking a printed sign above its awning.  With each year the place looks shabbier, the printed sign more faded, ultimately losing its awning.  Finally there’s nothing left but an empty lot, the telephone pole on the right being the only constant.  These simple images imply so much more than they record.  This was a place where people came to eat, a familiar local enterprise silently changing over time in a way parallel to the steady decline of the area since the 1960’s.  Art historically, the transition from black and white to color prints in this and other series documents another important aspect of Christenberry’s work, rightly credited with playing a significant role in the art world’s acceptance of color photography in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Klan Room Tableau
Courtesy MICA

Perhaps the most riveting element of the MICA exhibit is the room-size installation Klan Room Tableau. A selection of over 400 works of sculpture, drawing and photography the work is a response on the part of the artist to the brutality and horror wreaked by the Ku Klux Klan, especially during the 1950’s and 60’s.  It stands at this difficult time in our country’s history as a warning and a reminder of the continuous appeal, even the seduction, of groups that are predicated on ethnic hatred and violence.  At the doorway (which is closed off from entry) a statement by the artist reads: “I hold the position that there are times when an artist must examine and reveal secret brutality.”  Below this are headphones playing an audio clip of an interview with the artist in which he describes his first encounter with the group in 1960 Tuscaloosa.  Deeply affected by the segregation in his home state, he describes going into a building where he knew a Klan meeting was being held. As he climbed the stairs, he saw a member, fully robed with a pointed hood standing as though a guard.  He looked at Christenberry, turning just his eyes through the slits in the hood.  “Scared to death” by the sense of evil he felt, he adds, “I’ll never forget that as long as I live…Most of my work is celebratory, but how, as a human being, can you just turn a blind eye to that?”  The result seems obsessive and cathartic, dramatically different from the restrained imagery of the rest of the exhibition.

William Christenberry, Dream Building Gothic, 2008, wood, paint, encaustic, 103- x 24 3-4- x 24 3-4-, Collection of the artist
William Christenberry
Dream Building Gothic
Wood, paint, encaustic
103 x 24 3/4 x 24 3/4
Collection of the artist

In the atrium of the adjoining Main Building at MICA there are two additional Christenberry sculptural forms.  Both are white, and both are titled Dream Buildings.  Each has a tall cage-like base, the bars suggesting the neo-classical architecture of Washington DC, and also a prison.  Each is topped by a pointed roof above a projecting tower. The one on Dream Building, Gothic (2008) is particularly reminiscent of the Washington Monument.  The iconography here is both profound and polyvalent, a mixture of overlapping references to the Klan, to our common past as a nation, our present and our future.

Laying-by Time: Revisiting the Works of William Christenberry is on view at MICA’s Decker Gallery in the Fox Building is located at 1301 W. Mount Royal Ave., Baltimore, MD. The exhibition is on view through March 12, 2017.  Visit www.mica.edu/Laying-by_Time.html  for more information.

Gallery hours are Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sunday, noon – 5 p.m.