In Kerry James Marshall's paintings, Black bodies lead the stage—both historical and fictional—encompassing the times of slavery and civil rights movements through to contemporary scenes in Black life. While mostly known for his figurative paintings, Marshall also works with comics, photography, installation and video to create narratives that not only celebrate Black life but also confront the absence of Black figures in Western art history and culture. His protagonists' jet-black skin—one of the artist's trademarks—draws attention to the invisibility of African Americans in the United States while challenging the Western standard of beauty and heroism as white.
Given the artist's early exposure to now-monumental moments in the civil rights movement, it is no surprise that the recurring themes in his works are informed by the history of African American experience in the US. Marshall was eight when the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing took place in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, and two years after his family moved to South Central Los Angeles, he witnessed the events of the Watts riots unfold from a friend's house. His first home in Watts was part of the then-relatively-new Nickerson Gardens housing project, which appears in the painting Watts 1963 (1995). For his 'The Garden Project' paintings, similarly named after other American public housing projects and made during a time when the efficacy of such estates was being questioned, Marshall borrows a technique Leon Golub employed in the 1980s: unstretched canvases fastened directly to the wall. As opposed to Golub's representations of human torture, Marshall's gardens overflow with decorative motifs ranging from floral patterns to Afro-Caribbean spiritual symbols, with an emphasis on self-representation. In his 'Souvenir' series, the artist pays tribute to African American cultural figures; in Souvenir I (1997), Dr Martin Luther King Jr, President John F Kennedy and Senator Robert F Kennedy are commemorated on a wall with their portraits and the words 'We Mourn Our Loss'. Other paintings reach further back to the history of slavery, as with Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of his Master (2011) and Vignette (2003).
After graduating from Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) in 1978, Marshall briefly engaged with abstract collages before turning to figurative representation with A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980); in this small painting inspired by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952)—a novel that addressed the problem of social invisibility African Americans faced in the early 20th century—Marshall renders a Black man nearly invisible by dressing him in black and painting a black background. Meanwhile, the whites of the painting—of the man's eyes, his wide grin and undershirt—contrast the black, resulting in a startling image that echoes blackface minstrelsy. At the same time, the elongated shape the head and the white shirt creates recalls African Fang masks, and Marshall's use of egg tempera (an ancient medium as well as a favourite of Jacob Lawrence) links his painting to his African American heritage.
While the general presence of Black figures in Marshall's oeuvre counters their historical absence in the Western art canon, some of his works directly problematise the underrepresentation of Black bodies in popular culture. Baobab Ensemble—an installation first created in 2003—offers visitors a place to browse through the artist's personal archives of images. Reiterated in 2016 for his retrospective exhibition Mastry, the images revealed that heroes in mainstream American culture are invariably white. Challenging such a white-centric convention of greatness, in his work Marshall consciously casts Black bodies in spaces that previously alienated them. For instance, the protagonists in his comics-inspired series 'Rythm Mastr' (2000–present) are Black superheroes.
Marshall is also noted for his lively depictions of the joy and love in Black community, another rare representation in art museums. School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012) portrays a Black barber shop, featuring individuals donned in detailed outfits and elaborate hairstyles. The interior of the shop is embroidered with gold highlights and intimate snapshots of life on mirrors—including a graduation picture—and a signed Lauryn Hill album. In this celebration of the richness of Black community, Marshall claims a linkage to Western art canon by inserting an anamorphosis—famously employed by Hans Holbein the Younger in The Ambassadors (1533) or William Scrots in his portrait of King Edward VI (1546)—of the Disney princess Aurora. Other scenes of love and leisure in everyday Black life are common subjects in Marshall's paintings, such as the young couple in Untitled (Club Couple) (2014) and the young woman posing underneath a hanging bar in Untitled (Playground) (2015).
Exhibiting since the early 1980s, Marshall has recently shown his works at the Venice Biennale (2015, 2003); David Zwirner, London (2014); National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (2013); Secession, Vienna (2012); Vancouver Art Gallery (2010); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2009); and Gwangju Biennale (2008). In 2016 Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago partnered with The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles to organise Mastry, a major retrospective of his decades-long career. Marshall's achievement has also been recognised by numerous grants and awards including the Rosenberger Medal (2016); Wolfgang Hahn Prize (2014) and MacArthur Fellowship (1997). He currently lives and works in Chicago.
'I wanted to break the notion that blackness was a reductive condition, that it couldn't be complex and chromatic,' says the 62-year-old artist Kerry James Marshall of his work Invisible Man (1986), now on display at the Rennie Collection in Vancouver. 'This colour here,' he says, pointing to the edge of the work, 'is actually a very deep green.'
Mastry, Kerry James Marshall's aptly-titled retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (which has travelled from New York's Met Breuer), provides an in-depth survey of the American artist's work from the 1980s to the present day. Throughout his career, Marshall has consistently sought to correct the under-representation of...
In 1951, a controversial Jackson Pollock exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York featured paintings made by pouring only black enamel on white cotton duck. The work was panned as emblematic of a hugely important artist hitting the skids. Parsons could barely give them away.Since then, a genre that came to be called black paintings has been...
For much of his adult life, the artist Kerry James Marshall has been on a mission to redress a big omission: 'When you go to an art museum,' Marshall says, 'the thing you're least likely to encounter is a picture of a black person. When it comes to ideas about art and about beauty, the black figure is absent.'
Kerry James Marshall on Black identity, history and the process of making work. Interviewed on the occasion of Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works exhibited at Rennie Museum, June 2–November 3, 2018.VIDEO & EDIT: Milena Salazar
Rennie Museum hosted a talk by Kerry James Marshall on May 31, 2018. Maintaining an interdisciplinary approach to art-making, Marshall is perhaps best known for his prowess using classical techniques to re-integrate black figures into the history of painting. As part of the exhibition programming, Marshall took part in the Rennie Speaker Series to...