With the death of William Christenberry earlier this week, a broad survey of his work opening December 9 at the Maryland Institute College of Art takes on new weight as a memorial tribute. Along with the photographs of rural Alabama that the artist is most known for, “Laying-by Time: Revisiting the Works of William Christenberry” includes paintings and sculpture as well as his rarely seen Klan Room Tableau, a multimedia installation that is his rebuke to the Ku Klux Klan. The show’s title takes its name from the term used in agricultural communities to describe the summer period when farmers have finished planting their crops and await the harvest, and alludes to Christenberry’s annual trip to Hale County, the place at the center of his work, which he considered home.
The photographs in the show include his 16-image suite documenting the fate of The Bar-B-Q Inn in Greensboro, Alabama, a tiny structure that Christenberry photographed over the course of almost 30 years. In that time, it served as a radio repair shop and a cafe before closing its doors, falling into disrepair and eventually being demolished. Elsewhere there are simple wooden churches and red brick buildings, front porches stuffed with potted plants and a clothesline hung heavily with quilts. While Christenberry insisted his work was not about nostalgia, his attention to the subtle shifts of color across seasons and over years make his work a sympathetic record of the passing of time.
“Great art is a creative prism through which we can consider our personal and collective experiences,” says Kimberly Gladfelter Graham, the exhibition’s curator and MICA Curatorial Studies faculty, in a statement. “William Christenberry’s masterful work allows us to relate to an important place and time in the shaping of our American story and to consider our personal choices in its continued unfolding.”