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The Kelley Walker exhibition Direct Drive, which opened at the Contemporary Art Museum in Saint Louis, has been criticized by members of the St. Louis community for its representation of black men and women in some of the works on display.

Kelley Walker - CAM St. Louis Statement (Posted September 23, 2016)

To the CAM community:

I deeply regret that a great deal of anger, frustration and resentment have developed in the St. Louis community as a result of my failure to engage certain questions from the audience during the public lecture at CAM last Saturday. The concerns were legitimate, so I regret that I did not answer them adequately at the time.

The KING magazine covers and Black Star Press works––two series among a broader body of work that deals with the circulation and recycling of images––are at the center of this controversy as they explore the politics of race. Although the works date from the early 2000s, they have been exhibited many times since then and I have also spoken about them in depth in prior artist talks and interviews, I should have been much clearer and more articulate about them. Given the painful recent history of the city, as well as the much longer history of violence and injustice directed at its African-American community, I should have been better prepared to address the subject matter.

I am a staunch advocate of social equality and civil rights in America. I am also an artist who seeks to create thoughtful, sometimes difficult dialogues about these issues. I have always hoped that these works, and the exhibition as a whole, would provide a forum for a conversation about the way American society gets represented in the media as images shift from context to context (newspapers, magazines, film, TV, etc.) and about how the representation of the body, particularly of the black body, is an exceedingly complex topic in American art and culture.

I hope that the St. Louis community will give my exhibition a chance to generate this conversation. I also hope that the community, as well as the museum, its director and its staff, will understand how much I regret the misunderstanding and the ill feeling caused thus far.

—Kelley Walker

Paula Cooper Gallery Statement (Posted September 21, 2016)

The Kelley Walker exhibition Direct Drive, which opened at the Contemporary Art Museum in Saint Louis, has come under fire from members of the St. Louis community for its representation of black men and women in some of the works on display. The uproar followed an exchange between Walker, exhibition curator Jeffrey Uslip and community activist and artist Damon Davis during a public lecture. Details about the controversy can be found in the links below. Davis has called for a boycott of the museum until the exhibition is taken down.

The anger of the black community and its challenge to systemic forms of racism, in St. Louis and elsewhere in the US, is real. Questions of race and representation are sensitive and urgent, particularly when seen within the context of decades of violence and disenfranchisement, punctuated by a seemingly endless string of tragedies. We believe, however, that it is positive for this difficult conversation to occur, as we firmly believe in art’s power to ask crucial questions about our times, and in its potential to elicit a multiplicity of responses and points of view. We trust that CAM will provide a safe and welcoming space for this conversation to take place and for this multiplicity of voices to be heard.

The role of the artist, it has been said, is to ask questions, not answer them. Kelley Walker’s art centers on the use and reuse of images that already circulate in our culture. In the St. Louis exhibition, which presents close to fifty works with imagery as varied as Volkswagen and Benetton ad campaigns, brick walls and sculptures inspired by the recycling logo, two bodies of works have generated concern within the community. They are based on appropriations and alterations of hip-hop magazine covers and documentary photographs from the 1963 civil rights protest in Birmingham. These not only consider our troubled history, but also reflect on the representation of the black body in contemporary culture, as well as open up onto larger issues of power, violence, consumption, and desire.

Art is not one-dimensional, and is always up for debate. Race-related issues in Walker’s art have been discussed by a number of artists and critics; indeed, in this exhibition’s catalogue an essay by Hilton Als further addresses these very issues. It is the artist’s and the gallery’s wish that Direct Drive may provide the impetus for a renewed and much needed dialogue about race and representation, in St. Louis and elsewhere. Conversely, we stand firmly opposed to calls for a boycott and closing down of the exhibition, which effectively result in shutting down dialogue and are an instance of censorship.

Throughout its history, the Paula Cooper Gallery has been unequivocal in its support of progressive causes, including racial justice and equality, and in its rejection of all forms of reactionary politics, including the suppression of an artist’s voice.

Last Friday, shortly before this controversy unfolded, yet another unarmed black man was fatally shot by police in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We extend our condolences to the family of Terence Crutcher and stand in solidarity with those seeking justice, accountability and an end to racially-motivated violence in this country.

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