The Henry Art Gallery has five exhibitions up right now, which leaves the unpleasant impression of flightiness. Some artists can be served perfectly well by small exhibitions: Jacob Dahlgren, the Swedish abstractionist tucked into various corners of the museum—the entrance, the elevator, a small gallery, a smaller video room—is one of these. The towering figure of William Kentridge is not. The smattering of his work at the museum has only a couple of high points, but this may not be an irredeemable situation. If you take in the entire season-of-Kentridge, which includes not just the museum exhibition but also a one-night performance by the artist at Kane Hall, a show of recent prints at Greg Kucera Gallery, and a separate two-week run of Kentridge's staging of Claudio Monteverdi's opera Return of Ulysses by the Seattle company Pacific Operaworks, well, then you may be able to get an adequate impression of the famous South African artist.
Kentridge is a little like Picasso. He is an art-world phenomenon and he makes all sorts of art—drawings, prints, sculptures, tapestries—but he is not equally compelling in each. For instance, his drawings, prints, sculptures, and tapestries might be left behind. His genius is in the moving image: especially stop-motion animation made by continually drawing, erasing, and redrawing in charcoal. His films, which he's been making since 1989, are godlike in skill; his ability to transform a cat into a bomb into a rain of falling limbs into a series of wires into a bifurcating modernist slice down the middle of the screen—this is why Kentridge is a phenomenon.
He also makes setups for seeing that are little marvels, and again, they send the image (and the viewer) on a journey. At the Henry, an otherwise pointless sketch of a head next to a laborer becomes a little turning story set under glass and reflected in a cylinder on a pedestal; you have to walk around it. There are stereoscopic images: two prints united by being viewed through a pair of glasses sitting over them, spiderlike. In stereoscopic scenes, the printed figures and forms appear to have actual depth; the result is childlike fun. But these are also adult explorations of modernist themes. One is a send-up of Marcel Duchamp's Étant Donnés—the nude-in-a-landscape sculpture seen through a peephole—in which the head of a man peers shamelessly between the legs of a cubist woman who looks out rather desperately to the viewer. To Kentridge, seeing is theater.
Kentridge started out in the theater and has been designing productions since 1975. The appearance in Seattle of his version of Ulysses is occasion to be excited. Monteverdi is basically the first great opera composer. His works—this one was written in 1640—are rarely performed. Kentridge agreed to allow his contemporary staging, which includes puppets and which sets the dying Ulysses in a hospital ward in mid-20th-century Johannesburg, to be adapted by Seattle-based music director Stephen Stubbs, a national leader in early music. Unlike many other adapters of Monteverdi, Stubbs says he is not padding the score; he will let it work its minimal magic, made possible by the fact that Kentridge's staging puts the musicians onstage with the singers. (The production goes to San Francisco after it plays here.)
Much less is known about Kentridge's lecture-format solo performance I Am Not Me, the Horse Is Not Mine, which made its debut at the 16th Biennale of Sydney last year. It follows the development of the artist's latest opera adaptation, of Dmitri Shostakovich's The Nose (based on the Nikolai Gogol short story), set to open in 2010 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Kentridge's history with theater and opera has associated him with all sorts of histories and fantasies. But his basic story is apartheid. As a child, he saw photographs of the dead anti-apartheid protesters of the 1960s; his (white) family members were prominent civil- rights lawyers. His film Stereoscope (1999), seen at the Henry, features the breakdown of his fictional character Felix Teitlebaum—a mournful, middle-aged white office factotum. (Kentridge's other stock character is Soho Eckstein, a white real-estate tycoon modeled on Kentridge's grandfather. All three also resemble the artist himself.) Safe in his office, Eckstein is racked by the threat he's trying to ignore—the violence outside. Black bodies lie dead in the streets as he types at his desk. Eventually, the bombs that have been going off outside make their way into his office, leaving him standing alone, without even his black cat, tears pouring out of his pockets and filling up the room. The word "FORGIVE" appears, "GIVE" flashing first and then "FOR," posing the question of whom forgiveness might really be for. What does a self-aware, well-heeled white man do with his disgust and guilt?
The other two small films at the Henry—one a terrific use of a medicine cabinet and the way one's mind wanders while brushing teeth—are quite neat. But Kentridge's skill is only put to knockout use when he engages his moral sense. It's refined, not bludgeoning. He occupies a melancholy, tenuous position. He doesn't make satire per se, but he's in line with Goya, Hogarth, and Daumier, social scribblers all. His best work may be right up there. Too bad we don't really get to see it in these galleries.