“The museum was always lorded over you as an inner-city kid, especially if you’re from a public school in Baltimore,” says Hamza Walker, associate curator and director of education at the Renaissance Society. Looking at objects from distant cultures as a child, he says, he’d often find himself wondering what to think. “What am I supposed to learn from this goddamn spoon, or this marble bust, or this Brueghel painting? What is it trying to say? Maybe I wasn’t getting anything, but even an antagonistic stance can be healthy.” He didn’t know about Chinese culture or African culture in these periods. “But I wondered, can I unlock what is held within this carved spoon? Maybe not, and that’s OK.”

Walker joined the Renaissance Society staff in 1994, after working at Urban Gateways and Chicago’s Public Art Program and cocurating exhibits at Randolph Street Gallery. His current curatorial effort, “All the Pretty Corpses,” juxtaposes eight artists whose work reflects goth culture; Walker writes in his catalog essay “that the dark side may well be upon us, and that ours is an era of Good versus Evil.” He calls Kacy Maddux’s elegant, bizarre drawings–showing humanlike shapes with organs but no heads–posthuman, suggesting that they question the head as the seat of consciousness. John Espinosa’s sculpture 150 % consists of two stuffed deer fused with hairless black “shadows” of their bodies. They lock “antlers” in an explosive angular form between them. Social themes are prominent, as they have been in most of Walker’s shows. Steven Shearer did an Internet search for “death metal bands” to find words to rearrange for his Poems, two ten-foot-high all-text wall paintings. Walker says that Shearer’s “incredibly crude phrases, like ‘suck my unholy vomit,'” are “inversions of positivist spiritual values, a response to the idea that the Christian right has a monopoly over moral values.” Two of Sterling Ruby’s three large faux-agitprop panels, installed at the show’s entrance, include texts mysteriously advocating for “the amorphous law” while the third includes images of genitalia.

The son of a jazz drummer, Walker hung out in clubs when his dad played, and he did some drumming himself. Going to punk clubs as a teenager, he became aware of punk’s relationship to “the bloated youth culture of the 60s. I’ve always had an interest in youth counter- and subcultures.” He moved to Chicago in 1984 to attend the University of Chicago, spending one quarter in his sophomore year in France and Ireland. “It was total cultural saturation in my first experience of a place more than 400 years old. Everything was so overwhelming, from the Bayeux tapestries to the apple-and-almond tart I had when I first got there. In Dublin I saw the Book of Kells–the mack daddy of illuminated manuscripts.” Back at the U. of C., he discovered that the art-history sequence ended in the 1920s. But the school did bring German contemporary-art historian Benjamin Buchloh in to teach during Walker’s third year. “His lectures were painfully dense–and brilliant. One on negational strategy that included things like Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning drawing was mind-blowing. I understood that avant-garde art was questioning the museum’s authority.”

Two key exhibits also helped get Walker interested in contemporary art. In college he saw a Mike Kelley show at the Renaissance Society that included one of John Wayne Gacy’s clown paintings, and much before that, the Baltimore Museum of Art installed a Bruce Nauman neon sculpture on its facade. “‘Silence,’ ‘violins,’ and ‘violence’ flashed in succession. It was the coolest. I didn’t know it was a work of art, but you see this in middle school, you don’t forget it–the ideas of silence being broken by violence, or of the violin as an instrument of torture.” Walker says he doesn’t think of his own exhibits as confrontational. But reminded of how important these shows were to him, he replies, “You got me.”

Working with artists is the “high” of curating, Walker says–“discussing the larger world with them, and art as a place where we might try to make meaning and sense of the present. I have a deep belief in museums as a place where we reflect on what and who we are. The present may or may not achieve legibility through its art, but even a failure would be saying something–that the present is incredibly heterogeneous and may not make sense to us.”

All the Pretty Corpses

When: Through Fri 12/23

Where: Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis, 4th fl.

Info: 773-702-8670

More: Eileen Luhr gives a lecture on Christian metal and punk subcultures Sun 12/11, 2 PM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.