Over the past decade, Kerry James Marshall has received extraordinary attention for his paintings that explore his childhood memories set against civil rights activity first in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 and a few years later when he moved with his family to Watts in Los Angeles. The strength of these paintings lies not only in the fact that they deal with both complex historical and personal subject matter, but that they are informed by such diverse influences as classic Renaissance painting, film making, the monumentality of history painting, and Abstract Expressionism.
Finding his way as a student at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, Marshall experimented first with representational paintings inspired by social and political stories from the newspaper. He then turned for a period of time to abstraction in search of paintings that did not rely on subject matter to make an impact. 1980 marked a turning point for the young artist. Just out of school and on his own as a painter, Marshall looked again to representation, this time drawing not on "found" narratives from the newspaper, but on experiences that came out of both personal and collective memory. As he has said of the reversal, "Narrative content coincided with my reading of folk tales and folklore; I began to feel the story was everything!”(1)
The two paintings included in this exhibition Better Homes, Better Gardens, 1994 and (Untitled) Altgeld Gardens, 1995 are part of "The Garden Project," a series of paintings from the mid-1980s that was both parody and commentary on life in low income housing. Both are classic examples of Marshall's work from this time, showing African-American characters against the backdrop of these housing projects. The intrigue of the narrative is, of course, what initially draws the viewer in, but it is the formal complexity that makes these paintings work. Executed on a monumental scale on unstretched canvas, they function as both mural and banner. The paint application is at times painterly and abstract, and at other times more realistic and linear. Ribbon-like banners flow through the paintings as if to herald the viewers' arrival, while the collaged elements, and in places rough surface treatment, become a metaphor for the dilapidation of the projects. The numbers and letters superimposed on the composition reinforce the contradiction between institutional housing and bucolic gardens. The juxtaposition of opposites is a consistent theme of many of these works not only formally, but through content, which contrasts the promise of low income housing with the reality of its existence.
Beginning a few years ago, Marshall made another shift in his work, not necessarily changing his conceptual explorations, but certainly expanding his format by moving into installation work, video and photography. This exhibition, "A Narrative of Everyday," includes "theoretical video," and a single fifty-foot-long woodcut. Although woodcut is not a new medium for Marshall, the grand scale of this print is.
This woodcut, Untitled, 1998 was executed by the artist in his studio, cut from 4 x 8 foot pieces of plywood The scene is an interior, a regular suburban home, in which six young black men have gathered for lunch or brunch or maybe just coffee and conversation. In essence, there is no apparent action to the scene, but the subtext is rich because it challenges the conventional representations of black men which, as Marshall points out, are often times "represented as somehow threatening, somehow violent, somehow irresponsible, somehow nihilistic and alienated." (2) In addition, the activity of this information gathering is a traditionally feminine one, which overlays additional complexities, raising questions of their sexuality. As the artist explains, it is not necessarily true, but the audience is drawn in, first by the challenge to stereotypes and secondly by the mystery of the underlying story. What brings these men together? Certainly the size and scale of the work have at impact, the dichotomy of its monumentality versus its banal subject matter gives the scene import.
The work purposely does not have an edge; the activities of the six men are specifically mundane. For an artist like Marshall who has dealt with political and sociological themes throughout his work, this woodcut is a departure point. It is, as he notes, "something I always wanted to explore in my work. At the same time that I want to suggest some sort of political and sociological content, I never want to picture it per se. Part of this is to show that representations of African-Americans can be incredibly mundane, that they can be ordinary and they don't have to be event-filled or anxiety laden or about political activism. They can just be a picture. Period."
Marshall manipulates and juxtaposes formal elements the same way he plays with subject matter. The figures are simplified and flattened, yet they occupy space in a very sophisticated way. The composition seems straightforward, and the narrative functions like a tableaux with the viewer reading the story from left to right. At the same time, the figures occupy the space three-dimensionally, like characters on a stage. One thinks of the different frames and story line in Giotto's Arena Chapel frescos, and the way the figures move back into space with their bulk rather than the traditional devices of shading and perspective. A window box of flowers purposely flattened and cartoon-like, not only calls attention to the artifice of the scene, but helps to move the viewer from the exterior to the interior. Like the subject matter, this mis-en-scene is a challenge to deconstruct, for it is at once primitive and sophisticated.
The other component of this exhibition is a "theoretical video" filmed by Marshall in his south-side Chicago neighborhood over the past year. Marshall calls this a "theoretical video" because it is still images from unassembled video samples shot by Marshall at an earlier date. Like the woodcut, they are a confluence of artifice and reality, both realistic and many steps removed from realism by nature of their technique. Most of the subject matter is everyday events including women and children living in the nearby high-rise known as the 4120 Prairie building, gang activity and prostitution.
This contrasts with the other primary focus of the series which comes from the Bud Billikin parade, the largest annual parade in south-side Chicago. The parade has a festive, carnivalesque air about it with marching bands, drill teams, clowns, floats, and beauty queens. The portrayal of the beauty queens in the parade is slightly eroticized and fantastic, and one cannot help but draw connections between this rarefied but artificial world and the harsh reality of the prostitutes and single mothers living in the tenement housing. Even the clown (dressed in some comic representation of a woman) points to a depiction of lives that can range from comic to tragic. "You can argue that one's whole life is dedicated towards seeking some sort of approval, giving some kind of pleasure, being entertaining in some way," says Marshall, "but what happens in the gap between?"
Marshall presents the video stills in sequence and seen together one gets the sense of an elliptical but somehow connected narrative, like a constellation that has many galaxies and relationships. Using video stills allows him to suggest a continuum not apparent in the frozen moments of traditional photography. The implication with video stills is that one understands they are selected from a longer sequence of images with a beginning and an end. At the same time, any narrative progression can be manipulated and controlled by the artist. So again, Marshall uses realism as his departure point and then manipulates it toward an artistic end.
Kerry James Marshall creates worlds where reality and artifice collide. He does this by looking at his world through a lens that has been informed by art history and film making and transformed by personal experience and historical knowledge. Certainly his subject matter, which is both personally empirical and historically meaningful, forms a solid core for the work regardless of medium. But it is Marshall's alteration of reality through artistic form that gives his work its impact. As Norman Manea asks in his essay "On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist"—"Does the chimera of reality become more real than reality itself?" (3)
Adjunct Curator of Contemporary American Art
1. Sultan, Terrie. Kerry James Marshall Telling Stories, Selected Paintings,Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, 1994, pp. 18-21.
2. Quotes from the artist are from an interview with the author, August 16, 1998, unless otherwise noted.
5. Manea, Norman. Essays by Norman Manea "On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist," Grove Press, New York, 1992, p. 55.