There was the Old South, where Massa wore white linen and Uncle Tom wore rags, and there is the New South, where black mayors don dashikis or Bill Blass suits, as the occasion requires. And then there's William Christenberry's South, where Klan dolls wear designer robes.
Christenberry's South is set out for us in a major, or at least large, new exhibition that opens at the Corcoran Gallery this Saturday. A professor of art at the Corcoran, Christenberry, 47, certainly has impressive Southern credentials: He was born, reared and schooled in Alabama and has passed his entire career south of Mason and Dixon's line. The last 15 years he has spent in Washington, the biggest little Southern town of them all.
Christenberry works in all sorts of media, from photographs and oils to sculptures and scale models, and keeps his attention focused unwaveringly on the South. Most particularly he dwells on his native Hale County, to which he returns repeatedly with his camera and, apparently, a pickup truck, judging from the number of Tube Rose Snuff and RC Cola signs he has collected.
While Christenberry has gone home again and again, he seems not to have found anybody there: There are no people in his South. He has a wonderful eye for, and a sure hand with, places and things, but what Christenberry shows us of his region is all externals, the sorts of impressions a shy but sharp-eyed Yankee tourist might gather while waiting for his car to be fixed at some crossroads filling station.
One comes away with no idea of how the artist feels about his subjects. The neutrality of the works extends even to his magnum opus, the Ku Klux Klan Room, on which Christenberry has been working for twenty years and which he has said reveals "a strange and secret brutality." But his Klansmen are dolls, or photographs and sketches of dolls, set in attitudes neither menacing nor pitiful, doing nothing in particular. The power of the Klan, when it had any, came from the anonymity of the robe and hood, which lent any yahoo or ribbon clerk an air of dreadful mystery. There's nobody at all in Christenberry's Klan costumes, and consequently no reason to care about them.
This elaboration of form and shunning of substance is consistent and must be deliberate. Whether you love it or hate it -- or, like most of us ambivalent Southern boys, do both at once -- the American South is not just piney woods and peanuts, red clay and kudzu; it's principally an emotional landscape. Christenberry, as though fearful of offending (or perhaps despairing of our comprehending), presents only the setting and the props. If his vision is too personal and private to share, why has he called us together? WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY: SOUTHERN VIEWS -- Through June 19 at the Corcoran. Open 10 to 4:30 Tuesday through Sunday, Thursdays until 9.