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June 10 – August 1, 2015
1515 14th St NW
Washington DC 20005
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William Christenberry: Studio Wall

William Christenberry: Studio Wall

This is not really an art review; this is a reverence, an adoration.  William Christenberry’s work hit me hard when I first saw it around 30 years ago.  He is now a major American artist with an international reputation and a long record of important exhibitions.  When I met him in his Connecticut Ave studio many years ago and saw him at exhibitions of his fellow DC artists, I valued his unique appreciation for personal history.  He caught the eye of other photographers such as Walker Evens and often worked with the great William Eggleston. He was spurred on by the extraordinary curator, Walter Hopps.  With what appeared to be lightening speed, Christenberry became a national figure with many museum shows.  His early photographs using a simple Brownie camera and his small constructions of churches and rusted scraps of advertising signs were so personal and original that I remember them in detail.


William Christenberry: Church, Sprott, Alabama 1971

The Hemphill exhibition is relatively small especially since Chistenberry’s body of work is so extensive, but it reflects the essence of his work.  I hope that it leads viewers to seek out more of his work not only of signs, old stores, and churches, but also of the heart-breaking images of children’s graves decorated with toys.  His work is rooted in past and present Alabama.  His images tell stories and are remarkable for the light they capture.  Some artists are known for their moods.  Christenberry is known for his intelligence, his special understanding of simple objects, and most of all, for his love of his subjects.  He understands as few do, that objects hold history.

Palmist Hand

William Christenberry: Palmist Hand, Havana Junction, Alabama (detail), 1980

Even though his Klu Klux Klan dolls are not shown in this exhibit, I must mention them.  He used to keep them in a special room lit with red light.  They resemble the Voodoo dolls of Haiti, New Orleans, and some other cultures.  I remember they conveyed real menace.  It was clear that the Klan signified danger, not only for the newly freed slaves of the South, but also for contemporary African American and white Southerners.

I am grateful to see these works again.  I would like to join Hemphill Fine Arts in recommending William Christenberry, the Aperture monograph (2010).


Working in multiple media William Christenberry (American, born 1936) has built a body of work that speaks without nostalgia of the passage of time and how the past is embedded in our experience of the present. Best known earlier in his career for his elegiac photographs made largely in one small rural county in central Alabama, Christenberry is now equally well known for his sculpture, works on paper and abstract assemblages. The most recent of many publications covering his career are Working from Memory, published by Steidl, and Kodachromes, published by Aperture. His work is in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, among others.  Upcoming museum exhibitions include Tracing a Line, a survey of works on paper at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, AL in September 2015.  (Hemphill Fine Arts)



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About The Author

was a founder and editor of the Washington Review, a journal of arts and literature that documented cultural life in Washington for over 28 years. She is now the Creative Director of the Washington Film Institute and a Contributor to District Journal.

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