Words Alone Cannot Describe William Kentridge’s Animated Film

A good indicator of whether or not a work of visual art succeeds on its own terms is its ability to resist literary explanation. By this measure, my notes for Tide Table and Learning the Flute (both 2003), black-and-white animated films by the South African artist William Kentridge, on view at Marian Goodman Gallery, should serve as evidence of the works’ success. The best I could come up with was a hasty inventory of pictorial motifs, a by-the-book description of cinematic methodology and an attempt at divining political intent (the legacy of apartheid spurred Mr. Kentridge’s best-known films). Given how deeply Mr. Kentridge is involved with transformation as a formal and thematic conceit, it makes sense that his work should elude concrete description. I’m not suggesting that art criticism is a futile pursuit: God created metaphors for a reason. Yet Mr. Kentridge’s art only goes to prove how wanting, even silly, words can be.

Tide Table and Learning the Flute are narratives in the sense that they document the evolution of drawn images. We register Mr. Kentridge’s distinctive, ham-handed touch as his unseen hand sets down, alters and erases myriad scenarios. Unapologetically low-tech, the films stutter, flicker and twitch. In contrast, the images themselves-Egyptian temples, the oncoming tide and a trio of dictators looking through binoculars at the rabble below their balcony-evolve and flow with an uncanny lyricism, their transmutations suggesting history’s unpredictable march. Politics continue to haunt Mr. Kentridge’s vision-he touches on race, capitalism and poverty-but they’re only one subtext among many. It’s as if he had realized how stunting polemics can be to the life of art. In the process, the work gains in grit, scope and poetry without sacrificing an iota of moral purpose. I don’t think Mr. Kentridge is the best artist working-but that the thought should even cross my mind speaks to his singular achievement.

William Kentridge: Tide Table (2003) and Learning the Flute (2003) are at the Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, until April 10.

Sister’s Got Soul

Tools of Her Ministry: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan , an exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, has been mounted with consummate care and precision. So I almost hate to mention that the most compelling thing about it isn’t a piece of visual art. Go to the listening station on the fourth floor and sample the gospel music of the self-appointed “soldier in the army of the Lord.” Accompanied only by a tambourine and a rock-solid faith in God’s “great strong Voice,” this New Orleans street missionary sang and improvised hymns to the beat of spare, trance-like rhythms. (Sister Morgan died in 1980 at the age of 80.) Her pictures of New Jerusalem, Jesus piloting an airplane and St. John the Divine are just as insistent as her music, but seldom as riveting. Instead, they make us take a step back: Whether transforming angels into agents of oppression or the written word in to a maelstrom of marks, Sister Morgan is forbidding in her fervor.

Her pictures are too self-enclosed, too obdurate and claustrophobic, to stir religious feeling. The homely charms of Rose Hill Memorial Baptist Church (undated) are more inviting-and considerably rarer-than the scary intensity of There’s a Bright Crown Waitang for Me (undated). Solace can be taken in unexpected materials (neither lamp shades or styrofoam platters were too humble a surface for Sister Morgan’s visions) and eccentricities of incident (lawn furniture would seem to be an integral part of heaven’s décor). Less distinctive is the pictorial ingenuity-the imperatives of vision aren’t amplified by artistic invention. Compare Sister Morgan’s work to that of Bill Traylor, Morris Hirschfeld or Martin Ramirez, and you’ll glean the difference between run-of-the-mill and exceptional folk art. Authenticity is never in doubt. If all you require is proof of one woman’s unrelenting faith, then this show will fit the bill.

Tools of Her Ministry: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan is at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, until Sept. 26.

Artistic Freedom

How good are the paintings of the American artist Ray Parker (1922-1990), on display at Washburn Gallery? Good enough that I don’t fret over the answer. Here’s a more pressing question: What happened to the sense of possibility that brings such paintings into being? Listen to this: “Quitting the myth that a painter must be innocent of the artifice of art freed me of the … (limits and) rules I had made for myself.” Parker continues: “Now I could make a screwy shape, even a line! Color, yes! Field, yes! … Yes, anything, yes!” You could short-circuit your cerebral cortex trying to imagine the current crop of culture starlets mustering a similar optimism. If Parker’s stream-of-consciousness riffs on the biomorphism of Hans Arp and the cut-outs of Henri Matisse don’t necessitate historical revision, they do provide exultant color, effortless equipoise and a temporary reprieve from gravity. Aren’t those things we all need from time to time? Yes, and that’s what the paintings deliver.

Ray Parker: Paintings from the 1970s is at the Joan T. Washburn Gallery, 20 West 57th Street, until May 17.