What’s Hanging: Kara Walker’s “An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters”

Six new prints hang inconspicuously behind the gift shop at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), a series by Kara Walker entitled “An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters.” Kara WalkerThe etchings, composed with aquatint, sugar-lift, split-bite and dry-point, were recently acquired from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The aesthetic focus of each monochromatic print is strikingly different, as Walker’s lens shrinks from a vast ocean to a simple chamberstick. These individual works, “no world,” “beacon (after R.G.),” “savant,” “the secret sharerer,” “buoy” and “dread,” create a continuous world of inky shadows when juxtaposed.

The first work, “no world,” captures the tumultuous voyage of a ship at sea, lifted above the rough waters by a pair of dark hands emerging from the deep. The sky, torn by a hazy black and blotchy white, suggests a chaos that extends beyond the jagged, angular waves. On the left side of the painting, the silhouettes of two figures hint at a primitive plantation perched upon a plateau. Underneath the swelling seas, another figure, disconnected from the reaching hands, lies belly-down in a shade of color only slightly darker than the ocean itself. While the viewer’s eye is first drawn to the stark white sails set against the black hands and sky, an openmouthed female form lies prostrate beneath the turmoil, nearly imperceptible at first glance.

The second piece, “beacon (after R.G.)” is much smaller both in physical size and scope of subject. A jet-black column rises from a sketchy chamberstick with a tapered tip that is not quite candle-like. The simplest of the series in form, “beacon” pops off the wall with its minimalism. Upon closer inspection, the seemingly straightforward chamberstick reveals an illusion: Its sketchy execution eventually reveals two separate holders, both occupying the same space and depth.

Next to “beacon” is “savant,” the silhouette of a female nude whose face is masked by a net. This web both masks her profile and protects her from a wasp-like insect poised in front of where her eyes would be. Over her head, the word “AGAIN” is in quotations and scratched out, floating small and ominous and blending into the hazy background.

The series takes on a sexual note with “the secret sharerer,” a piece featuring four figures in a tumult of physicality. The focal point of the print is a nude woman mounted atop a male figure whose face turns away from the viewer. Etched with light clawing lines, these figures are the most detailed in the series and their central location in the arrangement draws the viewer’s eye inescapably. The roundness of the woman’s curves leaps away from the charcoal background, which, like “no world,” is a serrated symphony of two shades of gray that sharply rip at one another. Two other figures, silhouetted in the deepest black, can just barely be made out in the painting’s foreground, one whispering into the ear of the other. At the left of the composition, a nose, lips and  a chin quietly wash the print’s edge.

The fifth in the series, “buoy,” also features a sexualized female subject lying in a manner suggestive of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.” Inked in the darkest black against a slightly lighter background, the white eyes, lips and nipple of the nude female jump from her figure. A smoky substance wafts from her womb, revealing skeletal female features upon closer observation. Bony and vague, the tiny figure appears to have an abnormal number of unformed, fetal limbs. From the blackness of the background, another pair of tiny hands, like that in “no world,” reaches around this small ghostly thing in what could be seen as either an embrace or a stranglehold.

Walker’s final work, “dread,” depicts an unraveling braid, heavily textured with woolly scribbling lines and three cowry shells, only one of which still clings to the twisting end of a nappy strand. The subject, read from top to bottom, devolves from a neat plait into sinuous, unmade curls. In the ambiguous process of being either woven or unwoven, this final piece asks the question that the series has been begging – is this arrangement a construction or a deconstruction? The fragmented background that repeats throughout the prints presents no answer, and like the ship in “no world,” we are left unmoored and tempest-tossed by Walker’s work.