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William Christenberry’s Black Belt

By: William Christenberry
Reviewed by: Jerry Griffies
The University of Alabama Press, 2007
$25, Hardcover

William Christenberry wants to go home. In his D.C. suburban home, surrounded by artifacts of bygone times, his mind and hands busy themselves, bathed in the warm glow of childhood memory and beyond. Christenberry, best known for his color photography of rural Hale County, one of the poorest counties in the state, shows us this memory through his stark, childlike imaginings of this place holding magical sway and leaving room for the viewer’s own wanderings. William Christenberry’s Black Belt gives us proof of this yearning and the progression of this “returning” to his sense of the essence of the South. Scrawled ideas morph into thumbnails into silver halide and multi-material realizations of time and place.

Christenberry is considered one of the most influential southern artists working today. A craftsman/artist working in many media, Christenberry, in this small tome, seems to tell himself (and us) what he is thinking by showing us his practice of working gesturally and quickly in large thumbnail fashion to get the idea out on paper. These drawings are the basis and inspiration for all his other works offering a personal glimpse into Christenberry’s artistic process.

Christenberry has been quoted as saying, “One of my cathartic activities, and my first love, is drawing. Drawing is so immediate; you either win the battle or lose the battle. And even if you lose the battle, it is just a piece of paper. Drawing is a release because I do my best not to consider them precious…. I am always simultaneously working on something sculptural also, so that I can move back and forth between the media.” Black Belt reveals Christenberry’s “process” through his drawings, prints, photographs, and sculptural representations.

What’s important in this world? Christenberry answers this question by weaving a story that has by now come into its own. No longer simply a response to Walker Evans (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), whom he met at The University of Alabama while studying abstract expressionist painting, his is a story that covers years and generations of life in the rural South. His story tells us of a love affair—a lifetime involvement with the memory of things, more important than the literalness of things, and the beauty of time and the passage of time on a vanishing southern vernacular.

Jerry Griffies is an artist and educator living and working in Birmingham.

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