'Christenberry Reconstruction': 35 years of Southern history

By Michael Eilers
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 29, 1996

Arizona Daily Wildcat

An artist comfortable in various media, William Christenberry lectures at an exhibition of his work.


As I walked through both galleries of "Christenberry Reconstruction" with the artist himself, it became apparent that I was talking with a man who was living a dream.

Not a dream of fame or fortune, or of ego gratification, but a more refined artist's dream: to have the width and depth of one's talent on display for all too see. Rather than having piecemeal showings scattered across the globe, his dream was to have examples from over 35 years of work in the same room together, and to live to see it - this was the source of William Christenberry's joy. It is a rare opportunity for any artist - one that offers the opportunity of not just appreciation, but a chance that he or she might finally be fully understood.

"I have to admit I feel a deep sense of satisfaction," Christenberry said. Alternately describing the retrospective as a "scary" and "wonderful" experience, he said that it is always "a learning experience to see these pieces in a different context."

This show is fundamentally about context. To see a single photograph or construction of Christenberry's is an experience, but not a whole one. Like any record of personal history, no single fact can tell the entire tale. Only when Christenberry's work is placed in context with companion pieces do the patterns and intentions become apparent. From his earliest photographs to the complex and conflict-ridden Klan Room, this show is a fascinating display of one man's remarkable talents at recording and investigating American history.

Christenberry is an unusual artist, one who moves through many different media with apparent ease. Trained as a painter, he became interested in photography and later created mixed-media work and "building constructions." Exploring the history and artifacts of the Deep South and the fading traces of the Confederacy, Christenberry combines artifacts, photographs and original constructions to explore and rediscover both his personal past and the echoes of Southern culture.

"It has been my goal since way back to try to deal with a number of different things through a number of different mediums," Christenberry said in his gentle Alabama twang. The results of this ambition are incredibly diverse, yet tightly focused. Ranging from tiny photographs taken with a Brownie camera to Jackson Pollock-inspired "action" paintings to meticulous sculptures of weathered Southern buildings, all of Christenberry's works mine the same vein of ore. His work is rooted in the South, in the red soil that adorns many of his pieces, and he explores a part of history that is often neglected.

Beginning in the first floor gallery of the University of Arizona Museum of Art, the show does not follow a chronological order, but instead finds a logical sequence. Movements in Christenberry's styles and media are compared and contrasted to expose the range of his work. Christenberry's photographs are shown with the sculptures they inspired, and "found objects" are contrasted with personal sketches and paintings.

Many of Christenberry's pieces require an active viewer with a ready mind to allow for full appreciation. All of his pieces on display have a depth that goes beyond simple aesthetic beauty and confronts a very personal view of history. His "synthetic" sculpture series titled "Southern Monuments" is a ready example: strange, geometric constructions of balsa, paint, dried gourds and earth. At first these seem almost childish, jumbled. But when viewed in context with each other, the monuments take on a spooky, sinister air - the rusted signs, the corrugated sides, the tin rivets and the blood-red earth all point toward the buried relics of the Old South, rotting away in an abandoned cotton field. These are synthesized chunks of history, deeply suggestive of a time that still haunts our memories: the post-Civil War decline of the South.

Perhaps the most approachable of Christenberry's pieces are the "building constructions," his meticulous sculptures of Southern architecture. He chose "vernacular" architecture as his subject, buildings created by carpenters and craftsmen, not architects, and designed to fit the landscape. While the detail is startling, these are not models or replicas in any sense - Christenberry used no measurement systems or floor plans during their construction. Beginning from photos (often of only one or two sides of the structure) the artist crafted the buildings from his own imagination as much as from the photographs. Using his painter's skills, each building has been meticulously antiqued and weathered so that a piece finished in 1989 looks a half-century older.

These constructions have a subtle depth. They are handmade artifacts, three-dimensional records of history, which will outlive the buildings they copy and extend the richness of vernacular architecture beyond its years. Christenberry felt a photograph wasn't adequate -he had to see the building in depth.

Looking around the main gallery it is remarkable to see how many different trends in artwork Christenberry allowed to influence his work, from the splatters of Pollock to Pop Art compositions to Abstract Expressionist painting and sculpture. What is even more remarkable is how he managed to take these diverse methods and root them in the South, making these styles his own. While most Expressionist art floats in a cultural vacuum, referencing nothing but itself, Christenberry never lets you forget that the South is his primary subject.

Once you enter the Center for Creative Photography's gallery his photographs begin to take precedence. Bold, almost plain, and brightly colored, his photos record the Southern landscape with a historian's eye for detail and an artist's sense of change over time.

Just before the entrance to the Klan room are several of his "Dream Building" sculpture series. Haunting, windowless structures with peaked roofs, these are attempts to capture in three dimensions a building Christenberry saw in a dream just weeks after part of his Klan exhibition was stolen in 1979. Evocative and sinister, these are a perfect preface for the room to follow.

The Klan room itself is beyond simple description -only a walk in that room will reveal the depth of Christenberry's nearly obsessive penetration of the South's hidden past. Working in dozens of different media, and commissioning other artists to co-create pieces he felt were beyond his skills, Christenberry managed to portray both the evil and the seductiveness of the Ku Klux Klan. In 33 years of investigation, he has examined this taboo period of American history with unmatched clarity. Christenberry has confronted this stain on our democracy with an unblinking eye, on such a level that no viewer will walk out of this room undisturbed.

It is both my hope and the hope of the artist that the Klan Room will not eclipse the rest of this exhibit - it is only one aspect of a long, illustrious and continuing career. Yet the lesson of the Klan Room should not be forgotten: Only by confronting evil can we ever hope to overcome it; only by acknowledging its seductive power can we guard ourselves against it.

The 35-year span of "Christenberry Reconstruction" is as ambitious as it is dazzling - this is an utterly unique opportunity to confront and comprehend a remarkable American artist. Christenberry's active mind and unlimited courage have allowed him to venture where few have dared - to look history in the eye without blinking, and mine diamonds from the common dust.