BAHM: 2.11.17 Kerry James Marshall
Kerry James Marshall is a Chicago-based artist known primarily for his large-scale paintings of almost exclusively black figures in a celebration of African American culture, lifestyle and history. Born in Birmingham, AL in 1955 and relocating to Watts, Los Angeles in 1963, Marshall experienced firsthand the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements that shaped the direction of his artist production from an early age. He was a 1978 graduate of the Otis College of Art and Design, studied in L.A. under Social Realist painter Charles White and completed a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. In 1997 Marshall was awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant; his work has been shown in the 1997 Whitney Biennial, and the 2003 and 2015 Venice Biennales. A major survey of the artist’s work over 35 years, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, The Met and will open at MOCA Los Angeles from March 12 to July 2, 2017. Marshall is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.
One argument that has been made about Marshall’s work is that it can be categorized with other Civil Rights-era artists seeking to uplift the image of black life in a moralistic attempt to combat the degrading stereotypes of White Supremacist ideology. This culminates in a rejection of Abstraction in favor of a more Figurative style akin to Social Realism and which focuses on distinct depictions of a thriving, patriarchal black community. While Post-Black artists such as Kehinde Whiley actively challenge the notion that moralistic, positive portrayals are the most affective forms of visual representation to combat racist stereotypes, Marshall achieves the same effect through his Figurative style, undermining the conventions of the artistic style rather than the subject matter. The subject matter, for Marshall, is “non-negotiable” and “unequivocal,” while the style varies dramatically across each canvas, and as Carroll Dunham states, “abstract formal values, intensity of facture, and personal symbolism collide, while different notions of blackness, as subject, condition, and material reality are conflated.” While at first glance, Marshalls paintings read as fixed and absolute depictions of black culture and history, the details suggest a conversation with Modernism and its ability to represent lived experiences. In a 2012 interview with ArtAuction Marshall stated, "it is possible to transcend what is perceived to be the limitations of a race-conscious kind of work. It is a limitation only if you accept someone else’s foreclosure from the outside. If you plumb the depths yourself, you can exercise a good deal of creative flexibility. You are limited only by your ability to imagine possibilities."
Artforum Article, January 2017: Carroll Dunham on Kerry James Marshall's Mastry