THE ART of Washington's William Christenberry demands peculiar patience. "Southern Views," his show that opened yesterday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is less an exhibition than a recollection. It has a cumulative eeriness. Its bullet-riddled Nehi signs, its trays of Alabama earth, Klan dolls clad in satin, meticulous constructions, table-sized tableaux monuments and paintings, boxes, books and photographs share a retrospective spirit. What is required of the viewer to stir the ghosts within them is a series of retrievals, a seeing with the mind's eye, a kind of waking dream.
Christenberry's show, an enfolding mental travelogue, is all of one piece. It is vastly more compelling -- much stronger and much stranger -- than its often humble, sometimes unimpressive parts.
Despite or because of his recent noteworthy successes -- a $30,000 federal commission, a$75,000 Tax-free Lyndhurst Foundation prize--Christenberry has been, at times, derided here as an overrated artist. His photographs of shacks or signs, so his critics claim, are too bland, too quaint, and too much like the photographs of William Eggleston and Walker Evans. The rusting signs that he collects, and then exhibits whole, are just found souvenirs. True, his doll-house-scale buildings are beautifully crafted and beautifully painted, but aren't they, after all, merely architectural models?
The exhibit at the Corcoran, which was organized by Walter Hopps and comes to town from Houston, does much to put such doubts to rest.
It succeeds, first of all, because it is so big. Christenberry's objects, even the most literal, nourish one another. They insist on aggregation. They lose much of their magic--and there is magic in them--when they are viewed alone.
His life-work is a hymn. His fidelity is awesome, his intensity is laser-like. Each work of art he makes contributes to a single branching theme. His show is a massed choir in which every object sings about his Alabama home ground, his memories, his South.
He photographs its details--its country churches, dusty streets, kudzu vines and tended graves--modestly, straightforwardly. His small buildings also reiterate the real, for most of them are based on structures he knows well--the Baptist church in Sprott, Coleman's Cafe in Greensboro, a green warehouse near Newbern. His scavenged, rusting road signs, whether fastened to the wall or snipped to make the patch-work quilts that coat his little monuments also have been torn whole from west-central Alabama. Most of Christenberry's art is crisp and unpretentious. None of his many photographs depends on darkroom tricks. His little buildings seem, in every telling detail, astonishingly accurate. His faded rusted signs--for Nehi, Grapette, hybrid corn, county roads or snuff--have not been retouched.
And yet all of these objects do more than restate facts.
What makes them works of art is their surreal reach. Each one is a thread that has been woven into one strange, seamless web. Christenberry's art nets both what he has found and what he has imagined. It catches at its fringes--and herein lies its power--a South that can't be photographed, a place alive with bitterness, nightmares and sweet dreams.
To wander through this show is to experience Hale County, to know it in and out of time, to feel, as Christenberry feels, its sad and dusty beauty. His art makes manifest the ghosts that rustle in its weeds, the gods its people worship, and the fantasies and fears that goad its Ku Klux Klan.
It is difficult to think of another artist, another visual artist, so obsessively committed to one environment, one place.
Certain writers come to mind. One thinks of John O'Hara's Gibbsville, of Thomas Hardy's Wessex, and especially of southerners, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and the rest. A few painters, too--Gauguin in Tahiti, Wyeth in Chadds Ford, Monet in his gardens, Hammershoi in empty rooms, Vuillard in his mother's flat--have found in their surroundings all the raw material they required for their art. But Vuillard and Gauguin were primarily concerned with problems of pure painting. Faulkner and O'Hara, of course, were writing fiction. Christenberry's motive is something other than invention.
Even when he builds buildings he has dreamed, or conjures with his Klan dolls, or makes art that is near-abstract, he is as true as he can be to his Hale County.
At 46, he is a sophisticated, learned man. An exhibit of his early work, now at the Middendorf Gallery, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW, demonstrates how much he took, more than 20 years ago, from the paintings of de Kooning. But Christenberry even then painted tenant farmers' shacks. He has studied, too, the modern art of Johns, Rauschenberg and Warhol, Duchamp and Cornell. But his borrowings have never turned him from his chosen path. His place is his one subject. He hungers for completeness. He wants to show it all.
He wants to show its history. One of the most moving found objects in his show is a yellowed calendar from 1947, on which another Christenberry, the artist's grandfather, inscribed accounts of family events, some of the 1940s, some of 1862.
He wants to show its climate. One of his best wall pieces, a kind of weathered-Warhol grid of 32 old signs, some faded by the sun, some rusted by the rain, says as much about time's erosions as it does about Tops snuff.
He wants to show its buildings and its meadows and its graves.
Very rarely does he find one instant, or one point of view, or one medium sufficient. He has returned to photograph Coleman's roadside cafe time and time again--sometimes with his cheap unfocusable Brownie, sometimes with his 8-by-10-inch Deardorff view camera--in 1967, 1971, 1972, 1977, 1978 and 1981. But even that was not enough. He has reproduced its signs on his tableaux and monuments. And twice he has constructed it, small, in three dimensions.
That cafe has become a relic, an amulet, an icon.
The best works in this show--the monuments, the tableaux, the "Dream Buildings" and the Klan Room--transcend the real. The smaller sculptures here, with their spheres and cubes and cones, look both new and strange. Yet their rusting surfaces, their gourds and little ladders, bind them unmistakably to the landscape of the South. His windowless "Dream Buildings," with their corrugated sides and their scary pointed caps, will not be found on roadsides, but they, too, belong to rural Alabama.
Christenberry's show is, on the whole, benevolent and courtly until its very end. It is in its final gallery that one comes upon the Klan.
Christenberry's Klan Room is stronger than a tirade. It blends the pretty, the pathetic, the banal and the vicious, the Christian and the coarse. Its message is unclear. It is partly a diminishment, partly a catharsis. Hopps has called this work a "nightmarish toyshop." Toy Klansmen in toy robes are surrounded by toy cages, toy churches, coffins, guns. It is the most obsessive piece in this obsessive show.
Finally one understands that Christenberry wants to show more than rural Alabama. In his pensive and compulsive, sometimes narcissistic way, he wants to show himself. He hoards his signs and snapshots and his memories like gold.
"They are not," he says, "self-portraits. But they're everything I know."
With the Gilliam show nearby, the Corcoran now is showing more good local art than it has for years. Perhaps the time has come to liberate, for temporary shows, the grand skylit galleries around the atrium where exhibits strong as these deserve to be hung. "William Christenberry: Southern Views," though supported by grants from the Cafritz Foundation, the Women's Committee of the Corcoran, and the National Endowment for the Arts, does not as yet have a catalogue. It was installed, and nicely, too, by Alex Castro. It closes June 19.