Monday, April 5, 2010

"When am I going to turn blond?" Carolyn, my black-haired daughter, when 4.

"Up until then, I had not considered that a black woman could be considered as a goddess of love and beauty. Even I took the classic European ideal for granted." p. 14*

I came across these words of painter, photographer, and printm
aker Kerry James Marshall in a book that surveys decades of work through the year 2000. (Marshall teaches at the University of Illinois.) Here is Blue Water Silver Moon (1991), acrylic and collage:

There's something so graceful and beautiful about that pose. I like that her head almost blends in completely with the upper edge of the image. And those circles - why do they work so well? Describing another painting, Marshall talked about the challenge of maintaining a sense of dimension while trying to make his figures as flat as possible. To get that density, he said he sometimes painted the black figures as many as eight or nine times, trying to find as many combinations of warm and cool blackness as he could, "to make them breathe more." (p. 90)

Below is Voyager (1992), with its themes of birth, death and journey.

Marshall often likes to combine elements of history and references to contemporary culture in his work. It's hard to see the detail because some of it is so light, but the name of the boat, the Wanderer, was evidently a luxury schooner that was refitted in order to transport slaves. The last slave crossing from Africa to Georgia was made by this ship in 1858.

"The male figure is fugitive, largely obscured by the sail, while the female sits prominently in the ship's prow, garlanded with roses. The work is embellished with delicate line drawings derived from Afro-Cuban nsibidi and anaforuana signs and symbols used in religious ceremonies. . . .Haitian vévé symbols. . . and medical illustrations of embryos." (p. 15)

I'm sure you noticed the nsibidi right off the bat - actually I had no idea what all these symbols were. I need more obvious clues, like the skull at the bottom.

This last one is Bang (1994). In the book, Marshall talks about the irony of the African American experience of holidays, and how it seems to him that it is Black people who seem to celebrate the holidays most vigorously, barbecuing on the 4th and so on.

(There's an interesting short article about the controversy this painting caused when the curator of an insurance company's collection (Progressive Corp.) hung this painting near the cafeteria in the Cleveland headquarters. The artist came to the site to discuss and defend his work. Click here for more on this.)

Do you know his work? What do you think? I usually resist work with political or social themes somewhat reflexively, but I am drawn to his with their layered imagery and visual complexity.

* Kerry James Marshall, text by K. J. Marshall, essay by Terrie Sultan, conversation with Arthur Jafa, Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2000.

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