‘Strange Bell’ Rings True: Revisiting the Art of William Christenberry

Christenberry's 1971 "Coleman’s Café, Greensboro, Alabama. Image: Hemphill Fine Arts.

In the 1970s, William Christenberry, along with his friend and fellow Southerner William Eggleston, was responsible for the acceptance of color photography as fine art. Regarded as a medium for amateurs and commercial advertising, it was previously considered inferior to black-and-white photography. Now, a survey of Christenberry’s work, Memory Is a Strange Bell: The Art of William Christenberry (at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans through March 1, 2020) shows that color was more than an aesthetic choice. Haunted by encounters with the Ku Klux Klan, Christenberry used art to grapple with the issue of color in Southern society. In a time when white supremacy seems once again a threat, his work seems both prescient and ominous.

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1973’s “Green Warehouse, Newbern, AL.” Image: Hemphill Fine Arts.

The title of the exhibition, which includes more than 125 works in painting, collage, assemblage and sculpture in addition to photographs, comes from a line written by Emily Dickinson: “Memory is a strange bell, jubilee and knell.” The phrase (inscribed on Christenberry’s gravestone in his birthplace of Tuscaloosa, Alabama) captures the positive and negative aspects of his work. For four decades, Christenberry documented the effects of time, the elements and humanity on the vernacular architecture of the derelict cafés, abandoned shacks and remote churches of Hale County, AL. The images have an aura of both celebration and mourning, presence and absence.

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1971’s “Church, Sprott, AL.” Image: Hemphill Fine Arts.

Hale County, in AL’s Black Belt, is one of the state’s poorest counties. It’s where Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio students practiced DIY architecture. It was the setting for Walker Evans’ photographs of 1930s sharecroppers, coupled with James Agee’s prose in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It’s also where Christenberry spent every summer of his youth at his grandparents’ farms.

In 1960, after studying art at the University of Alabama, Christenberry discovered Evans’ images in the second printing of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. A year later, he met Evans in NYC. At that time, Christenberry was taking color photographs with a Kodak Brownie camera, mainly as source material for his expressionistic paintings. But when Evans saw the tiny drugstore prints, he told Christenberry they were “perfect little poems” and encouraged him to pursue the subject of the rural South.

The rest is art history. From 1962 to 1968, Christenberry taught at Memphis State University, where he had convenient access to his childhood stomping grounds. He became friends with Eggleston, who switched to color photography after seeing Christenberry’s 3×5 Brownie prints tacked on a wall. Together they revolutionized the field of photography, changing it into an intensely colored, narrative medium fraught with emotional and psychological vibrations.

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The Ogden’s exhibition is comprehensive, beginning with Christenberry’s early paintings, drawings and collages influenced by the highly saturated color of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. After two galleries of these brushy, dense works, it’s a relief to encounter his small-scale Brownie prints in the next gallery. It’s obvious that Christenberry found his ideal visual vocabulary in these front-and-center images of everyday scenes in red-clay country. Evans’ stark aesthetic and intimate, simple compositions were a profound influence. The tiny prints function like a synecdoche where the part stands for the whole of the South: unchanging in some respects as kudzu overwhelms decaying structures and rapidly changing as road signs for Royal Crown Cola vanish from the landscape and human memory.

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1981’s “Palmist Building, Winter View, Havana Junction, AL.” Image: Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

This is not the upwardly mobile New South of middle-class African Americans and corporate headquarters. It’s also far from moonlight-and-magnolia nostalgia for a mythical Old South of moss-draped plantations. Christenberry’s mother complained, “Son, everyone is going to think Alabama is a rusted, worn-out, bullet-ridden place based on your work.” To which her son responded: “The place is my muse… Everything I want to say though my work comes out of my feelings about that place — its positive and negative aspects.”

Starting in the 1970s and through to the 2000s, after Christenberry switched to a large-format Deardorff view camera for his work, his 8×10 prints have granular detail — and a visceral impact. His annual images of the Coleman Café, Baptist Sprott Church and Palmist building succumbing to the ravages of time and encroaching verdure are like a time-lapse tour of the eroding South.

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1974’s “Dauphin Island, Ala.” Image: Ogden Museum.

Hale County, for Christenberry, is also like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County around Oxford, Mississippi. You can almost hear the artist insisting about his native land, like Quentin Compson in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!: I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!

One consistent subject of the artist — the gourd tree — shows his love for his homeland. The gourd symbol conveys the positive, life-affirming side of rural society. (Hollowed-out gourds, hung on poles, trees and even TV antennas by Black, white and indigenous people in the South, function as birdhouses for Purple Martins, which are voracious consumers of flying insects.) Christenberry’s many images of gourds, first captured in a 1962 drawing and repeated throughout his career, suggest unity and connection to nature, a tender note in contrast to the entropy evoked in many pictures.

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Yet this son of the South does not shy away from acknowledging the hatred represented by the Klan. Christenberry first drew a Klansman’s hood — a conical form that obsessed him — in 1962 as well. He saw its echo in the peaked roof of structures he photographed, and the obelisk-shaped “Dream Buildings” that he sculpted out of painted particle board. “I think, I believe, I know that the hooded head form, and what it represents, what that organization represents, is the most terrifying and the most terrible thing in mankind’s history anywhere and in any country. And it hurts terribly,” he said.

2001’s “Dream Building Blue and Gold.” Image: Belger Foundation.

Over some three decades, Christenberry constructed a large-scale installation called “Klan Tableau,” which outfit GI Joe dolls with Klan costumes and assembled 400 images, objects and sculptures in an environment that probed Klan-inspired fears and fantasies. In 1979, the objects were stolen from his studio. In his subsequent nightmares, the idea of house and hood merged: double-sided images of simultaneous external shelter and inner shame. Allusions to the Klan hood appear in his photographs of triangular gables and the pointy-roofed “Dream Buildings” he sculpted.

Christenberry explained his persistent examination of the motif: “As a Southerner, as a human being (let’s leave it that way), again how could I, how can I, not at least, albeit one time privately, come to grips with the racism, the darkness.”

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1996’s “K-House.” Image: William Christenberry estate.

A final gallery at the Ogden contains art related to this sinister side of the South. It includes a drawing in which a Klan hood is embedded in ink while vulture-like brushstrokes hover overhead. In a mixed-media sculpture, a slumped Klansman is roped to a lynching tree. “Some people have told me that this subject is not the proper concern of the artist or of art,” Christenberry said. “On the contrary, I hold the position that there are times when an artist must examine and reveal such strange and secret brutality.”

When Christenberry was an aspiring artist, Evans had told him, “Young man, you know exactly where to stand with that little camera.” As both a young and an old man, he also knew when to take a stand.