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Q&A with Curator Kimberly Graham

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Kimberly Graham

Posted 12.09.16

Laying-by Time represents a broad sample of William Christenberry's work, including some pieces that have been rarely exhibited. How did you become involved in this exhibition? What was the inspiration for putting this exhibition together?

After I left Hemphill Fine Arts in Washington, DC, I moved to Baltimore and started doing work in the curatorial studies program and did series of independent curatorial projects for MICA. I got to know Gerald Ross, MICA's Director of Exhibitions, and we began musing about showing William Christenberry's work here; in part, because we both really like his work, but because we also thought that Christenberry is an artist that students should know more about. He worked fluidly between painting, sculpture, photography and drawing, and all of that work is bound by a very cohesive conceptual thread.

Did curating Laying-by Time present any unique challenges?

We had already committed to the exhibition when the Baltimore Uprising happened, and then we had this contentious presidential election. The vitriol that was brandished in the election was unparalleled. It became clear that the exhibition was going to be relevant. An important facet of Christenberry's work addresses the contemplation of hate and racial tension, so we had to be considerate of how our efforts in shaping his work were going to be received.

Then he passed away, which brings that much more scrutiny to the exhibition. My priority as a curator is to ensure, as much as possible, that the artist's intentions are protected. We had to try to balance the opportunity for discussion with the responsibility to speak as clearly as possible about the intentions of an artist who can't speak for himself.

What would you like the public to take away from Christenberry's work, especially in light of the current political climate?

First and foremost, I want viewers to appreciate Christenberry's craftsmanship and artistry – his work with materials, his intuition with color, and his confidence in composition. But to also understand that even in his more difficult work, there's an intellectual reward in considering a subject that's difficult or challenging.

I also want those who visit this exhibition to appreciate the conceptual magnitude of this work, the layers that can be unfolded, the stories that can be read, the chapters that build upon each other.

I've always found his work remarkable in the way that good art should be – his work transcends its particular place in time.

Are there any specific pieces in the exhibition that you want to highlight, or that you find personally moving?

I'm really pleased to have so many powerful pieces here. Grave II is a large painting that really shows Christenberry's foundation in painting. The expressiveness of the paint and the texture and the movement, it's wonderful to experience.

I wanted to include his voice as much as possible in this exhibition because his work is a story and, in his great Alabama lilt, he spun a great tale. We have transcribed memory of House at Christmastime, as well as the photographs and sculpture of the same site. There is a wonderful dialogue between the mediums and his effort to truly capture the essence of this place and its significance. It is an account of humility, pride and graciousness and the relevance of individual – if humble – lives.

Much of his work is about time and the passage of time. There's seasonal time, time of day, dream time, marking of time and again passage of time. The Bar-B-Q Inn suite of photographs span from 1964 to 1991. You can see the progression of a particular place, of what happens in its lifetime.

Finally, in wake of William Christenberry's passing, can you talk about his legacy and he impact of his work from when he first began documenting rural Alabama in the 1960s until today and onward?

Kimberly Graham, curator of Laying-by Time: Revisiting the Works of William A. Christenberry, talks about the transcendent nature of Christenberry's work, his times, and the unique challenges of curating this exhibition. One thing to understand is that Christenberry was a man of his time, and it was a tumultuous time. He certainly could have chosen not to incorporate some of the more challenging considerations into his work. But I think he felt morally as well as artistically that it wasn't something he could turn away from.

But his work isn't just about his Alabama in general and what makes it relevant isn't just his exploration of racial tension and rebuke of white supremacist attitudes. William Christenberry looked at things that were often overlooked. He looked at the lives of people that were often overlooked. The houses that are depicted are of tenant houses and sharecropper houses, houses that represent a certain economic tenuousness. He found hope and resilience there. Christenberry took the time to notice.

His legacy is that he very diligently, very considerately, and very patiently built this incredible body of work that took a lifetime to make. We're in this moment where we can consider it holistically and recognize the magnitude of his concept. And so it's his artistry and vision that are his legacy.

This page was last updated on 12/09/2016.