CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Southern obsessions: A day at the museum (part 2)

At the close of last week's column, I had finally entered William Christenberry's exhibit, "Site/Possession," at the University of Virginia Art Museum, after being interrogated and eyed with suspicion by the museum's unsmiling guards.

Fortunately, art— even when tinged with dark obsessions, as Christenberry's is— works like a balm on jangled nerves, and I quickly became absorbed in the artist's drawings, photographs, paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media pieces. Curated by the Museum's talented Andrea Douglas, the show is not intended as a retrospective, but rather as an examination of how Christenberry's Alabama roots have fueled his work for nearly 50 years. 

The southern things that mesmerize Christenberry are not of the cotillion variety; instead, like James Agee and Walker Evans, whom he cites as influences, he digs into the hardscrabble, red-dirt South. He draws and photographs kudzu-covered trees, and photographs and sculpts weathered buildings with rusty metal signs. Like a dog with a bone, he perpetually finds fresh bits of meat in his subjects to fuel his appetite and imbue his works with spontaneity and energy. 

Although his sense of composition, variety of marks, and skill at manipulating positive and negative space make his abstract tree drawings particularly noteworthy, Christenberry is perhaps best known for his work dealing with the Ku Klux Klan. As a young adult horrified by racist violence, he decided to infiltrate a KKK meeting. He made it only to the top of the stairs, where a hooded figure's anonymous glance terrified him so much that he had to leave. 

"I've never been a marcher or a joiner," Christenberry said in a Museum presentation, "but, privately, I began a body of work dealing with racism."

In addition to grappling with this subject in drawings and paintings, he began compulsively gathering and making Klan-related items, such as satin-hooded dolls, which he assembled into an evolving tableau. The piece was mysteriously vandalized in his studio in 1979. Christenberry's dreams following this harrowing violation led to a new body of work that elides the terror of the Klan with literal "constructions" of the South, i.e. peak-roofed houses.

Christenberry also resumed developing his "Klan Room Tableau," exorcising the KKK's demons by confronting them artistically. Currently installed behind a red curtain, in the UVA Art Museum's velvet dome room, the floor-to-ceiling tableau— encompassing sculpture, drawings, photographs, and even a hologram— offers a chilling, obsessive reflection on the South's own iconic brand of terrorism.

Having mounted such an important exhibition, the Museum should encourage, not discourage, viewers.

William Christenberry's epic exhibition, "Site/Possession," is on view through December 23 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.