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Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry

March 14 - June 14, 2009


Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry is on view at Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art from March 14 through June 14, 2009. This exhibition, a survey of past and present work, features more than 52 of Christenberry's photographs, drawings, paintings, sculptures and building constructions. William Christenberry (b.1936) looks for the spirit of Southern culture in the landscape and architecture of rural Alabama. Drawing from his formal training, family traditions and a lasting relationship with his boyhood home in Alabama, Christenberry has spent the past 50 years creating a remarkable body of work that explores all aspects of life and experience. (right: William Christenberry, Corn Sign with Storm Cloud, near Greensboro, Alabama, 1977, photograph made with Brownie box camera, Type-C print on paper, image: 3 x 5 inches. printed on 8 x 10 inch paper; matted 16 x 14 inches. Lent by William and Sandra Christenberry)

"Christenberry is one of the most important living artists from the South who also focuses on the South in his work," said Jochen Wierich, Cheekwood's Curator of Art. "His work has rarely been exhibited in Tennessee, and this Smithsonian retrospective will be the first major survey of his work in Tennessee."

"Though his work is inspired by the American South, Christenberry's overall themes are universal, touching on family, culture, nature and the spiritual," said Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "His artworks are poetic assessments of a sense of place, landscape, aging, memory and the passing of time."

The folk art and commercial signs that surrounded Christenberry as a child continue to influence his aesthetic sensibilities and are prominent in many of his works. "Alabama Wall I," a metal construction, includes bits of collected tin signage patched together to echo his mother's quilting. His strong sense of craftsmanship has roots in his father's woodworking skills; his structures and monuments, such as "Sprott Church," reflect the handcrafted objects and vernacular architecture of rural Alabama. (left: William Christenberry, Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama, 1983, Type-C print on paper, 20 x 24 inches. Lent by William and Sandra Christenberry)

Christenberry left Alabama in 1961. Though he never returned there to live, he has always related much of his work to his experiences growing up in the South. He explained, "Not because I dislike it, but because living outside it, I can see it more objectively."

Christenberry was strongly influenced by Walker Evans and James Agee's seminal literary work "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." Evans' straight-on photography and Agee's penetrating poetics are wholly evident in Christenberry's visual documents. The book, which deals with integrity of the rural poor living through the Great Depression, was written and photographed in rural Tuscaloosa, Ala. In 1936; the year of Christenberry's birth.

Christenberry received a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from the University of Alabama in 1959. Shortly thereafter, he began experimenting with a Brownie camera and in the mid-1970s, Christenberry created his first building construction inspired by his own photographs. Christenberry teaches at the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington, D.C. and has received numerous awards, fellowships and grants including the Lyndhurst Foundation Prize, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and an Art Matters grant. In 2005 he gave a lecture titled "Southern Views" as part of the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Christenberry is represented by Hemphill Fine Arts in Washington, D.C. and Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York City.

Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibition's tour is supported in part by the C.F. Foundation, Atlanta.


(above: William Christenberry, Egg Carton Cross, found in 1976, Styrofoam egg cartons, artificial flowers in vitrine: 31 3/4 x 23 1/2 x 5 inches. Lent by William and Sandra Christenberry)

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