Perhaps no other artist in the American South engaged more deeply and consistently with the concepts of time, place and memory through their work than William Christenberry. Although widely known as a pioneering master of color photography as an art form, Christenberry was a multifaceted artist – utilizing painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, found object assemblage, and installations to weave a deeply personal narrative with universal relevance. Memory is a Strange Bell: The Art of William Christenberry draws inspiration from a line of Emily Dickinson – often quoted by Mr. Christenberry – to explore the role of remembrance and the passage of time in the artist’s work.
Born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1936, William Christenberry had deep familial and cultural ties to Hale County, Alabama – a place made famous through the writing of James Agee and the photographs of Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. After studying painting and sculpture at the University of Alabama, Christenberry lived briefly in New York City and then in Memphis before settling in Washington D.C. in 1968. As an artist, his work moved easily from Abstract Expressionism to figurative realism, and had strong connections to Pop Art and documentary photography. As an educator, he was a well-respected teacher, lecturer and mentor to hundreds of students at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.
For half a century, the artist made annual pilgrimages home to Hale County, documenting the landscape, signage and vernacular architecture transformed by the passage of time. Through a focused examination of particular structures – the Palmist Building, the Green Warehouse, the Abandoned House near Montgomery – Christenberry created mythic symbols of a changing culture, and very personal symbols of a life lived fully. “They are not self-portraits,” he said, “but they are everything I know.” Through the poetic use of signifiers that permeate his body of work from the earliest objects to the last — the Gourd Tree to represent a connection to the land, unity and shared values; the Klan Hood to represent hatred, evil and the darkest side of the human soul – Christenberry created a body of work that is both a celebration of all that the artist held sacred about his native South, and a condemnation of the worst parts of the culture.