AMHERST — In the myth of Leda and the swan, the Greek god Zeus disguises himself as a swan in order to have sex with the mortal Leda. It’s a common motif in art history, a sly way to address sex without getting explicit. Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Rubens all rendered ivory-skinned Ledas succumbing to the charms of snowy, sinuous swans.
They all assumed, it seems, that Leda wanted to have sex with that bird. In her epic screenprint series, “The Emancipation Approximation (Colophon),” Kara Walker has a different take: Zeus raped Leda. He had the power; he took what he wanted.
You can see the series in a blistering show, “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power” at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, University of Massachusetts Amherst. It spotlights Walker’s trademark work with silhouettes, which unspools racially charged stories of the antebellum South.
The artist first gained attention in 1994 with a 50-foot installation at the Drawing Center in New York, a dark and antic spoof of “Gone With the Wind.” More recently, in 2014, she created a monumental public art installation in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory, a regal sugar sculpture of a sphinx with the head of a woman, which tackled the thorny, entwined histories of sugar and slavery.
Walker’s art, with its explicit depiction of the vicious and insidious repercussions of humans owning other humans, has its detractors. In the late 1990s, African-American artist Betye Saar waged a letter-writing campaign in which she called Walker’s art “revolting.” In 2012, the Newark Public Library temporarily shrouded a large Walker drawing that had elicited an outcry; ultimately, the library uncovered the art and invited the artist to speak.
Working with silhouettes, Walker usually employs a stark black-and-white palette. “The Emancipation Approximation” adds a stony gray and marks her first use of a white silhouette, to depict the swan.
Her stories read like fables with twisted, forbidding morals. Here the swan thrusts its head down one woman’s throat; it flies through the air with its head plunged between another woman’s legs. Her hair streams behind her; her arms flail and her mouth opens in terror.
It’s awful. It’s lucid. And, dare I say, it’s kind of funny.
Absurdist humor, part of this artist’s M.O., is an oddly effective means to spell out horrors so wrong they should be seen as absurd. And Walker does not mince horror. It would be simple for her to finish “The Emancipation Approximation” as a straight-out tale of perpetrator and victim, but the 26-print narrative delineates viral consequences that reach into families. Into souls.
The white swan’s head becomes a talisman of power, a weapon. In one scene, a boy in ragged clothes holds a swan’s head in one hand and a pointed stick in the other, aimed menacingly toward a baby. A younger aggressor, a younger victim. Abuse is encoded in the culture and perpetuated for generations.
Walker often bases her silhouettes on images from 19th- and 20th-century popular culture. They are, then, caricatures of caricatures; the midair “Emancipation Approximation” image is comic because of its cartoon acrobatics and exaggerated gestures. It’s also uncomfortably funny, like the best comedy, because it sheds light on dark truth.
With wildly expressive contours and a flat blankness that invites projections, Walker’s silhouettes become mirrors for our own racism, humor, horror, and compassion. Her work is a shadow play, a nebulous projection of society’s terrors and desires.
“What black stands for in white America, what white stands for in black America,” the artist said on PBS’s “Art in the Twenty-First Century” in 2003, “are all loaded with our deepest psychological perversions and fears and longings.”
But the history we write is often loaded with our desire to look good. Walker nimbly sets her outrageous yet humble fictions against official history’s backdrop in the series “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated),” layering silhouettes onto woodcuts first published in 1866. Considered at the time a definitive history, “Harper’s Pictorial” made little or no mention of violence African-Americans suffered during the war. More absurdity: a whitewashed Civil War.
The shadow of a black woman in a kerchief, much larger than the woodcut figures surrounding her, tumbles to her knees in “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated): Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats.” It’s as if the crowd is trampling her, despite her size. She is at once looming and ignored — an apt metaphor for racism.
Walker bases her video “National Archives Microfilm Publication M999 Roll 34 Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: Six Miles From Springfield on the Franklin Road” on a real story of a black family savagely assaulted by white men during Reconstruction. It’s the only color work in the show; the backdrop turns fiery as the family’s house is torched and burned.
There’s nothing funny about this tale; it underscores the vulnerability of blacks after the war, and the rage and bravado that fueled their attackers. Walker aptly presents it as a melodrama — the narrative equivalent of a caricature. These exaggerated, simplified forms, rooted in the era the artist depicts, provide easy, diversionary routes into aching subject matter.
But they are sugar coating. Once you stop laughing, once you step away from the romantic intrigue of heroes and villains and you grasp the stories she is telling, prepare to be wrecked.
Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power
At University Museum of Contemporary Art, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 151 Presidents Drive, Amherst, through April 30. 413-545-3672, www.umass.edu/umcaCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.