Ralph Lemon's exhibition (The Efflorescence of) Walter can be a little overwhelming at first, in part because it's something of a smorgasbord of ideas and media. A choreographer and conceptual artist, Lemon employs lots of video performance, drawings, folk art, sculpture and a wide array of themes, influences and materials. Look closely and there's even a kitchen sink in there somewhere, as well as a spaceship of sorts " and, of course, Walter Carter, the 100-year-old Yazoo City, Miss., former sharecropper who's the show's star and namesake. A youthful fiftysomething whose intellectual curiosity takes him anywhere and everywhere, Lemon discovered Carter while working on an earlier project involving historic Civil Rights-era sites including Yazoo City. Interweaving ideas from influential 1960s figures such as author and civil rights philosopher James Baldwin and conceptual artist Bruce Nauman, Lemon crafted his Geography Trilogy, which basically set the stage for this expo in which Walter Carter emerges as a foil for Lemon's ideas as well as a spry skeptic who doesn't cotton to any highfalutin theories. He doesn't believe that anyone ever went to the moon either, yet he seems happy enough to collaborate even if he's not always sure what it's all about. Together their antics come across as a spirited form of 'crazy wisdom" carried out in response to the official madness we call 'history."
The installation itself is intriguing if sometimes elusive; you can sense that some organic process of rumination or cogitation is going on while remaining hazy about the details and direction. For instance, James Baldwin appears as an animated head on a video display, his painfully eloquent facial expressions recreated in Lemon's terse line drawings as his oracular utterances issue forth in the audio. Baldwin is a continuing theme and influence, and so are Brer Rabbit, seminal conceptual artists Nauman and Joseph Beuys and, to a lesser extent, the Buddha (who appeared in an earlier work paired with African shamanism).
Actually, Brer Rabbit in various guises is a guiding presence throughout much of the show. In a nearby series of small drawings arranged in narrative, cartoon-panel sequences, a rabbit appears interacting with a man in a pointy hat like the kind Beuys made famous. There also is a man in a bunny suit playing records, perhaps the R&B hits seen in a series of paintings on the wall. Is the man making the bunny perform tricks or is the bunny calling the shots?
It's a complicated question. In a nearby video, a man in a bunny suit seems to shoot at another man in a bunny suit who goes limping off across a field in a scene that's almost too psychologically fraught to contemplate. Brer Rabbit appeared in Joel Chandler Harris' adaptations of African-American folk tales as a trickster who escaped the predatory wiles of Brer Fox, and in this show his spirit is alive and well. Although Lemon himself is obviously urbane and well educated, his methods often recall the intuitive approach of self-taught folk artists. In various videos, Carter appears in surreal performances that have a whiff of Brer Rabbit crazy wisdom about them. In a room-like environment inspired by Carter's home, a video on the wall and another up the attic stair depict him puttering around the house and then donning a space suit, preparing for space travel. Lemon may be pushing it here, but he did have Carter and some cronies assemble their version of a spacecraft from an old speedboat hull and a fine collection of hubcaps. Just beyond it is a visitor's lounge replete with more drawings, incendiary writing on the walls and an assortment of science fiction and other novels by African-American authors.
Like Brer Rabbit, Lemon is a master of symbolism who gives us a lot to think about without ever allowing pedantry to overwhelm his slyly playful sensibilities.
- Walter Carter's handmade spaceship is one of many high- and low-tech items that comprise Ralph Lemon's (The Efflorescence of) Walter.