William Christenberry is recognised as a pioneering colour photographer, now well-known in the United States but still relatively obscure in Europe. So it was brave of this fine exhibition at the Mapfre Foundation in Madrid to ignore the 77-year-old artist’s much-admired dye transfers to give an excellent overview of his core practice in simple little colour prints.
Christenberry is a painter, too, and he knew colour from the outset. But his start in photography came as a result of one of the more famous sets of black-and-white pictures, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the collaboration between film critic James Agee and photographer Walker Evans on the conditions endured by poor sharecroppers of the American South during the Depression.
“Some of the photographs were astounding to me because I knew the people in them,” he says. “Some of them had worked occasionally for my grandparents. When I showed the book to my grandmother, she said, ‘Oh, yes, that’s Mr So-and-So,’ and called out their names.”
The quality of the book and the coincidence of its being set in precisely his part of the world, Hale County, Alabama, triggered something in Christenberry. He sought out Evans, who became a life-long mentor and friend, and he started to photograph some of those same places. Once he started, he never stopped.
Christenberry’s concentration is on the passage of time. In a number of series he revisits a particular place year after year, chronicling (and rhapsodising on) decay and decline. His predilection is for weathered wooden structures, the shacks and shops and churches of the sharecroppers.
He makes detailed sculptures of these, of which a number are in the exhibition, elegiac in the affectionate recording of advertising signs and of every mend in the fabric.
There is no condescension in his pictures of these modest structures; he photographs them normally front-on, avoiding any folksy vernacular. When his buildings get overwhelmed in the end by woodworm or fire or the kudzu vine, he visits them one last time and photographs the square concrete foundation on which they stood or the pile of timbers that is all that’s left.
The South may in some aspects be a thriving modern contributor to national prosperity but it is also the broad seat of the most plaintive nostalgia in the US. There is the hankering for an imagined idyll of gentlemanly courtesy. There is the blues. There is the more recent resentment at the way the South has felt abandoned by the rest of the country in the wake of such disasters as hurricane Katrina. Christenberry is not coarsely nostalgic but he is deeply involved with the observation of time passing.
He sometimes photographs faint traces of antebellum architectural grandeur, a thin pilaster still discernible, never much more. He looks longer at those stoops on which the blues were first put together, as if aching to hear the plaintive call of an old Sears-Roebuck guitar. Whether Christenberry is photographing black churches and shacks or white ones, not the least of his subtleties is his determination that it makes no difference.
The few passers-by who sparsely populate his pictures are usually black; yet one of his subjects is the former Christenberry home, a wooden structure no different in type from the others. Christenberry is a white man.
This nonsectarian stance becomes important when considering a body of work included in the exhibition that will jar with everybody who sees it. The artist has for many years had an obsession with the Ku Klux Klan. He has a studio devoted to his works on the subject, which include drawings, photographs and a variety of sculptures. That studio, known as the Klan Room, has been partially recreated in Madrid, and it is disturbing. Not for Christenberry the chill horror of Andres Serrano’s great Klan portraits. Christenberry wallows in the Klan, in the very textures of their robes and hoods. He makes dozens of model Klansmen and locks them up in jails like miniature churches or in boxes like coffins. He ties them up, herds them. It’s an odd thing to say about an artist as acutely aware of his own proceedings as Christenberry certainly is (he is an art professor as well as a practitioner) but the Klan work is close to outsider art – an incomprehensible, almost savage obsession. Yet the Klan is of the essence of the South too. Other artists have avoided the Klan. Christenberry cannot and will not.
This is a fine and moving exhibition, although – because of the Klan works – not an easy one. Christenberry reminds us that the South is haunted by its own past, and its own former dreams. His clear-eyed and modest practice allows us to see how much we don’t see.
‘William Christenberry’, Fundación Mapfre, Madrid, until November 24 fundacionmapfre.org/fundacion/en