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On Artist Willie Little: Proof of Promises Kept

by Phillip Larrimore

July 22, 2016

Photos: (above) Detail view of Willie Little's installation "American Obsession" at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation's; (middle) Willie Little; (bottom) detail from Little's "In the Hood" installation.

When Willie Little was a 6-year-old boy, he stood in his Grandma’s vegetable garden staring at the Morning glory as the scent of honeysuckle wafted by, and promised himself that he would never forget this memory.  Years later, he made “Grandma’s Garden.” It was proof  that the promise was kept.

I remember seeing “Grandma’s Garden” at B.E. Noel’s gallery in 1999. It was striking in its unabashed lyricism in a time when art generally seemed rife with irony. Yet it seemed too fresh and clearsighted to dissolve into sentimentality.  Something bold and specific in its vulnerability disarmed this criticism. Many people felt, as I did, that the memories Little shared were much their own.

This may be partially explained by Little’s almost eidetic memory. “I see my past as a movie,” says Little, who currently has a piece up at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation as part of the Prompt show. (The exhibit also contains arresting pieces up through Aug. 21 by Quisqueya Henriquez and Susan Lee-Chun.) Little really means a movie, not some nebulous mental picture with a caption, but events unfolding in sequence in something like real time, with the emotional affect of having happened recently, no matter how long ago.

This Proust- or Nabokov-strength memory was put next to an exacting reconstruction of Little’s father’s country store in Pactolus, N.C., which became an illegal juke joint by night. Little credits Juan Logan, interlocutor par excellence among artists in these parts, with urging him to make something from his childhood stories about the juke joint.

What this become in practice was impressive: a three-quarter scale, 320-square-foot installation with 10 different full-length character/portraits (instantly recognized by Little’s relatives) each with their own tale, and songs, as well as a 10-minute narration delivered by Little from a Wurlitzer Juke box. "Juke Joint” has toured to wide acclaim for the last Willie Littledecade and a half, and is slated for permanent installation in the Smithsonian in 2017. I suspect, nevertheless, that its apparent guilelessness disguises its true originality. Seldom if ever has a viewer been allowed to walk through a space reconstructed from memory and simultaneously overhear someone’s experiences there.  With "Juke Joint,” Little gave installation art something of the heft of a memoir or novel.

The turn from lyricism to satire in Little’s later work has caused some consternation, but he might well reply that this is due to the nature of the present day. Satire and lyricism, moreover, have always  gone hand in hand. The sometimes oblique relationship between them hinges on the fact that satire at its best is not only an attack on societal evils but also a defense of what is loved. This would go some way towards explaining how Little’s later work addresses the contradictions of race in America. It is not a  subject he can  get away from.

As Little wrote in an email to me, “My first transition from embracing my shame-producing childhood to a more serious contemplation of social/political concepts came with…residencies that took me far away from the comforts of Charlotte. The first was at Caversham Press in South Africa, where I produced work responding to the Diallo case (in which) an African man was repeatedly shot and killed by the New York police. My response was 'Baggage,' a series of prints that examined America’s sense of self-righteousness and arrogance at the close of the century.”

A subsequent residence at the Headlands Center in Marin County, California, lead to Little’s “Oxidation Series,” which originate in Little’s appreciation of the textures and look of rusty farm  implements. The differences between the two series might give an idea of the balance between the polemical and the aesthetic that Little strikes. The polemical aspect creates puzzles for the viewer to parse, rather than resorting to outright editorializing; the seemingly formal turns out to have a subtext and a story of its own.

It is, however, the installation work of Little’s that forms the center of his output, which he has approached with slyness, outrage, cold calm, and formal ingenuity. A good example is "In Mixed Company" (at the Levine Museum of the New South in 2008), in which very elegant walking sticks based on African art but made of cockleburs surround a gown in a Belle Époque style made of blackened teabags and blackened doll faces. The walking sticks were suspended to hover above the 


ground as a verbal “score"—compiled of the things that white and black people say about each other in private—was played. Some of these  comments were cringe inducing, some of them were funny, and the walking sticks hovered amidst all  this like witnesses surrounding the Belle Époque teabag gown doll. The walking sticks had a great deal of anthrocentric presence—they were walking sticks on the verge of human personality—and seemed to be listening from a wiser perspective than the viewer’s own, as if they would have much to say on the Day of Judgment.

Little's "In the Hood" installation at the New Gallery of Modern Art in 2014 was as provocative as "In Mixed Company" was stately and sly. The centerpiece was a walk-in hood modeled on those worn by the Klu Klux Klan (attire imitated  from the Spanish Inquisition) and containing an effigy of the so-called “Hottentot Venus,” who had the ill fortune to be exhibited naked in a cage for the delectation of Victorian gentlemen of an anthropological bent due to the size of her buttocks. Her physique was said to have inspired the vogue for the bustle in the 1880s.

Consequently, Little made a wedding dress of a thousand hardened tea bags for her. This was not all. Above her hung a chandelier made of strands of pearls and black baby dolls from a simpleton time. There were hoods everywhere, even on a tea cosy, and bling galore put to discomfiting uses. It put the KKK and the Tea Party in the same boat and then swam around them brandishing  all the regalia of hip-hop. It was balefully funny. It also brought up a number of pointed questions about the exploitation of the black body by a mainstreaming white culture that can uglify, or fetishize, or reify, but seldom meet I-to-Thou. It contained a number of significant “thought bombs”—which might be defined as when a demonizing  cliché is skillfully rewired, and tossed back to the viewer to think about. 

This seems to be the wake-up technique of our time, to judge by choreographer Bill T. Jones, visual artists Ellen Gallegher and Kara Walker—the list could continue—as well as Willie Little. As a technique, it depends on the artists’ awareness of the racial imagery barely latent and scarcely submerged throughout  the general culture—and the sacrifice of the viewer’s general complicity to insight. The beauty of receiving a thought bomb is that it makes a mental space with which to see things afresh, even as it exposes some thoughts you didn’t even know you had entertained. It may also supply some illuminating new thoughts on the subject, if the time is taken to think. Wisdom would find this a gain, not a loss.


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Tags: installation, race, Pactolus, garden, juke joint, Wurlitzer, jukebox, McColl Center for Art + Innovation, Oxidation Paintings, Smithsonian

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