Kerry James Marshall: Artist in 'Mastry' of His Powers: On the Eve of a Major Retrospective of His Work, Bomi Odufunade Speaks with the Artist Who Has Spent the Past 40 Years Painting Blackness into the Canon of Western Art

By Odufunade, Bomi | New African, February 2017 | Go to article overview

Kerry James Marshall: Artist in 'Mastry' of His Powers: On the Eve of a Major Retrospective of His Work, Bomi Odufunade Speaks with the Artist Who Has Spent the Past 40 Years Painting Blackness into the Canon of Western Art


Odufunade, Bomi, New African


Known for his large-scale colourful paintings depicting powerful black figures, the artist Kerry James Marshall (pictured, right) has determinedly set out to address the representation of the black body within the canon of Western painting since the early 80s. Marshall adeptly weaves art history within the layers of his own paintings to take the viewer on a remixed visual journey through western art history, from the renaissance styles to rococo, romanticism and realism through to impressionism and modernism. A graduate of art history at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, his expert knowledge allows him to contextualise varying narratives to draw out themes of race, gender, history and politics, giving a voice to the intricacies of what it means to be black in America today.

Now, his bold and striking paintings are the subject of a major retrospective titled Mastry at The Met Breuer in New York; organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The show will travel on to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles after its East Coast run. This extensive exhibition features 72 paintings spanning an incredible 35-year career drawing together many of Marshall's early gems such as his first figurative painting, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980). Marshall says, "It was based on the idea of invisibility (of the black man) that was outlined by Ralph Ellison in his book The Invisible Alan". The picture, a portrayal of a black man painted against a black background establishes the template of the artist's concerns of positioning the black figure centre stage while embracing the ideals of traditional western portraiture and simultaneously using the historic medium of egg tempera as his painting tool.

Marshall tells me, "I did not really know what kind of artist I wanted to be so I decided the best way was to consider all aspects of the artistic practice, engaging in its craft and learning its historical and critical richness."

The distinctive approach he has taken is arguably what has made Marshall such an accomplished painter whether tackling portraits, interior scenes, landscapes or history paintings. A particular favourite of mine in the retrospective is Portrait of the Artist & a Vacuum (1981) which depicts a room with a vacuum cleaner placed at the right corner of the canvas, hanging on the wall of the composition is a second version of Marshall's A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self the scene evokes modernist still life painting while drawing attention to the mundanities of everyday black life and human existence.

Born in Alabama in 1955, Marshall moved with his family to Watts, Los Angeles in 1964. Now living in Chicago, he admits his artistic production is undoubtedly influenced by his environment and places he has lived; he unequivocally uses his paintings as a way of interpreting the social realities amongst a multifarious community. In Vie Lost Boys (1993) what seems at first to be a colourful and idyllic painting of two young black boys playing, one driving a toy car, the other carrying a toy pistol, upon close examination, reveals an engagement with many darker issues. The two boys in the painting are victims of gun violence, the dates of their deaths discreetly written on the canvas as an indictment of 'the loss of innocence and of youth'. Marshall reveals the work was in response to the arrest and imprisonment of his youngest brother who was sent to prison for seven years. He adds, "I was also particularly struck by the novel Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie and the idea of the lost boys and never-ending childhood." It should be noted that a year after the painting was made, President Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Federal Crime Bill that fuelled mass incarceration of black men across America spawning a generation of 'lost men' condemned inside the prison system.

Marshall is able to dissect the struggle of African-Americans in finding their place in American society; at the same time he admirably revels in and has a deep reverence for the black experience. …

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