White as a Sheet 

click to enlarge art49_art_christenberry_100.jpg

If you've ever waked up in a cold sweat from a dream about showing up at your advanced calculus final naked with only a box of crayons and an abacus, you understand the power of nightmares. (Everyone has that dream, right?) The dream universe is a warehouse of imagery that is loaded with meaning, whether deeply personal or Freudian (bananas, anyone?). So it's no surprise that an artist could base a career on delving into his own personal torment.

William Christenberry's exhibition, "Site/Possession," on view at the University of Virginia Art Museum through Dec. 23, is part living hell, part unabashed beauty. In 1960, Christenberry, an Alabama native, had a run-in with a Ku Klux Klansman and was, understandably, scarred for life, so I can forgive him for the mildly annoying postmodern title. This brief encounter provided the artist with fodder for a celebrated career that spans painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and printmaking.

His imagery isn't subtle. Three-dimensional pieces like "K House," a model of a whitewashed home with an exaggeratedly pointed roof molded from encaustic and beeswax, are the physical manifestations of the memory of the hooded boogeyman. Appropriately, pride of place is given to two large painting and encaustic works, "Shenandoah" and "Klavern 93," the latter a good four decades before "Freakonomics" clued anyone in, revealed the Klan's secret codes and symbols, thereby stripping them of their power.

"Ku Klux Klan Tableau," an installation warranting its own curtained-off gallery, is the most overt rendering of the nightmare. A cathartic exercise for Christenberry, it includes finished drawings of hooded heads, a plethora of robed dolls, a smattering of Confederate paraphernalia and, most hellishly, a hologram of a Grand Wizard doll that makes Chucky look like Elmo. Displayed under garish red, white and blue lighting -- imitating the patriotic colors commandeered by the Klan — the room resembles hell.

Not every piece in "Site/Possession" refers to the Klan. Abstract works in German ink on paper — particularly the "Dartmouth" series from 2003, when the artist was in residence at the college — are captivating studies in the tactile quality of the thick ink, which seems to settle on top of the paper rather than seep into it.

If your idea of hell is a theory-driven graduate seminar, avoid the explanatory wall texts, which ooze elevated artspeak. Nonetheless, Christenberry's demons translate into gripping art objects that make leaving the house this cold and flu season worth your while. Just lay off the cough syrup. S

William Christenberry's "Site/Possession," on view at the University of Virginia Art Museum, runs through Dec. 23. 155 Rugby Road in Charlottesville. (434) 924-3592.


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