Kerry James Marshall Promises Something 'Elaborate' at Contemporary

By Wilson, Calvin | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 19, 2013 | Go to article overview

Kerry James Marshall Promises Something 'Elaborate' at Contemporary


Wilson, Calvin, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Kerry James Marshall has found a space in the high-end art world for his visions of African-American life visions that are culturally specific, implicitly political and subtly ironic.

Even as it portrays the often bleak realities of urban life, his work subverts stereotypes. And Marshall, who has had exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as the Studio Museum in Harlem, has enjoyed a career in which he has imaginatively addressed the African-American experience, yet is not narrowly defined as an "African-American artist."

Marshall, 57, will talk about his work Wednesday evening at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. His project for the museum's Front Room series, "Garden of Delights," opens Friday. But in a recent interview, he said he hadn't yet seen the museum space.

"I have some pictures of what the room looks like, and I have the specifications for the dimensions of the room," he said. "I'm doing something that will fit in that space.

"But you know what? That's what a contemporary art museum is supposed to do. The very idea of what it means to be a contemporary art museum is that it's up to the minute. You're always supposed to be defying expectations." The end result, he said, "will be fairly elaborate."

Based in Chicago and the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1997, Marshall has been praised for the originality and insight with which he depicts African-American culture. Of particular note is his signature style involving the portrayal of figures with skin so dark that they stand out in bold relief against his urban backdrops, such as in the painting, "Watts 1963." That painting, in which a housing project is idealized as a place of blooming gardens and bluebirds, will be on view in the new East Wing of the St. Louis Art Museum opening next month.

"It's titled 'Watts 1963' because almost everybody knows that in 1965, the Watts Riots took place," Marshall said.

1963 is also the year that Marshall's family moved from Birmingham, Ala. a pivotal location in the Civil Rights Movement to Watts. By 1965, the family had relocated to the South Central section of Los Angeles, which would come to symbolize inner-city dysfunction and dreams unfulfilled. …

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