One of the basic shapes of human habitations - four walls and sloping roof – is generally seen by children as a living organism, with its windows for eyes and a center door for a mouth. This “human” quality probably explains why the sight of an abandoned house, prey to creeping vines and the other vegetation which overwhelms it, as it weakens without any inhabitants to care for it, fills us with an instant sympathy as if we saw an orphan in rags, all alone in a wilderness of unconcern.
The simple clapboard, faux brick or corrugated iron structures found in rural Alabama where he was born and grew up, are the subject of William Christenberry’s art. But as “Man can feel love for place, but he is prone to regard Time as something of an enemy” (reads the quotation on the wall from Eudora Welty), time passing, and the melancholy of mortality is the content of his work.
This is a retrospective covering five decades of Christenberry’s work, and the earliest is entitled, “Tenant House 1960”, a gestural, expressionist painting close to abstraction. While this work shows the consistency of Christenberry’s subject matter, it was in 1970 that he found the perfect vehicle for his subject, when he started his photo series and sculptures of buildings.
“Building with False Siding in Warsaw, Alabama,” is a series of five photographs of the same house from the same angle, over a period of time. In the first, we see the house standing peacefully in a field of cut grass with no other vegetation near, apart from the faintest lick of creeper starting to grow up the pillar on the porch. Over the passage of time, the house becomes progressively overgrown until it is difficult for the viewer to detect any trace of the building at all.
“Green Warehouse, Newbern, Alabama” is an installation of 20 photographs, all shot between 1973 and 2004 from the same viewpoint, of a strange, green, corrugated iron structure, which shows the gable end with its tall double inclined roof and three boarded windows along one wall. As time passes, the paint becomes distressed and we note that it is periodically repainted, always green, but never precisely the same shade. These repairs, however, never manage to conceal the real decrepitude of the structure. Standing apart from the wall of photographs is a sculpture (1978-79) of the same building, set on a large bed of red Alabama soil, and then placed on a stand to be viewed slightly below the average eye level so that the details of the roof can easily be seen. Christenberry’s meditative, patient process imparts a value to the edifice that it would not have otherwise: he has decided to use his own life’s time to record for us the ravages that time has wrought on a man-made structure of little worth. It is a poetic occupation, as well as an artistic one.
For me, these sculptures are the best of Christenberry. There is one other example in this exhibition, “Sprott Church (distant memory 2005)”. A white church isolated on a large bed of soil, it is looser in execution than the green warehouse. Based on an accompanying 1971 photograph, it seems clear from a later photograph, that this church no longer exists, having been replaced by a new church building on the same spot. So in this case, man, himself, was presumably the destroyer and the sculpture is then able to stand as a memorial.
There are different kinds of death. There is a natural passing away, something we mourn but understand; and then there is the unacceptable brutality we can scarce believe is human. In the 1960s, Christenberry became deeply affected by the homicidal activities of the Ku Klux Klan and began making works of art that related to that. In this exhibition, there are three images of hooded faces on paper constructed from ink transfers of various types of guns. One other work entitled “Crystal K Doll”, is a missile-shaped solid glass sculpture, lying on a mirror and partially clad in a red and white satin hooded robe.
My problem with these works is that I do not think it is possible to make an effective work of art on the subject of the Klan, particularly because of the need to call into play the hooded figure. The difficulty lies in the fact that the hooded figure has ancient and perhaps deep magical and religious appeal, which can be switched on in the viewer, even if unconsciously.
Apart from one or two exceptions, Christenberry kept his collection of anti-Klan works together as a single installation and, as I understand it, sometime in the 1990s, this entire collection was stolen.
Shortly after this event, Christenberry had a dream in which he saw a tall, square angled tower structure with a pointed roof, resembling an elongated house. This image then became the basis for a series of drawings, prints and sculptures, all titled, “Dream Building.” In this exhibit, “Dream Building Ensemble, 2000,” is composed of eleven of these structures, varying in height and width, some smooth, some with markings like columns, but all several feet tall, and white, and with pointed roofs.
There is something absurd yet deeply sinister about these “dream buildings”. Unlike the friendly house or useful warehouse, they have no windows or doors. They stand in a dumb grouping, without any way to interact. They cannot call on our human sympathy or on some ancient and ritualistic reverence. Christenberry has brilliantly incorporated his social commentary into the subject matter that he has made his own, thus releasing it from any mystical, and therefore dangerous, context.
The photographs and sculptures of the existing houses and buildings, disintegrating and abandoned, have their windows and doors boarded up. They are now fully enveloped by the encroaching future, and are thus a meditation on the natural and inevitable passage of time, leading to death, even as the viewer is also reminded of the life they once held and supported. But if her eyes stray again to the group of “dream buildings” with their sharp roofs and blank facades, she feels the chill of another kind of death.