“I / Is the total black, being spoken / From the earth’s inside.” This is how the poem “Coal” by Audre Lorde begins. Near the end of it, her speaker says “I am black because I come from the earth’s inside.” These lines beg the question: If one were to come from the inside of the planet, attempting to articulate one’s discrete being by intoning that key pronoun “I,” if you are underground how can you be heard? Kerry James Marshall is one of the key figures in the world of visual art who actively seeks to make this black voice heard, really, given his particular powers, make the black body housing that voice, visible. It has been publicly acknowledged that, “there is no meaningful history of black figures in the Western painting tradition.” When such figures have rarely appeared, they have mostly been ancillary characters supplemental to the plot, or providing a glimpse of an exoticized creature valued for the visual pleasure available in its obvious contrast to the presumed viewer. However, in Marshall’s work, the figures are central and almost always black, resolutely black, obsidian black, a struck-match black, the black that comes from being enveloped by a planet. And in canvas after canvas of his, these figures appear, sometimes depicting historical characters, sometimes modeling the customs of domestic life, sometimes acting as icons for abstracted values such as struggle and liberation. As Marshall says about his work, “blackness is non-negotiable in these pictures; it’s also unequivocal.”
Here, in the second leg of the first ever retrospective of Kerry James Marshall’s work, Mastry, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles the figures are unequivocally black but the contexts in which they come to have being are complex. It has been pointed out by other critics that Marshall draws on a wide range of source material for his paintings: from Byzantine iconography to the French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, to the Impressionist Edouard Manet, to Frida Kahlo, to symbols borrowed from the practices of Haitian Voudon and Santería.
This complexity comes to the forefront in the Garden Project paintings that show his black characters in urban housing projects with aspirational titles like Wentworth Gardens (“Better Homes, Better Gardens” 1994). In the painting “Many Mansions (1994) I see three men identically dressed in black trousers and white shirts tending a community garden. Around them swirl modernist painterly gestures — splashes of color that block off and obscure parts of the figures interrupting the narrative flow, or appearing as filigree around subsidiary objects, or as repeated designs that might approximate flowers.
Marshall’s painting style allows blobs of paint to sometimes drip down the canvas, to mark these works as contemporary, not a naïvely straight telling of a story of black uplift. As he says about his aims regarding the art historical canon: “My interest in being a part of it is being an expansion of it, not a critique of it.” He gives you a range of socio-political contexts in which these black bodies, and by extension, all bodies politicized as black belong: urban housing projects, rural areas, bourgeois idylls with the golf courses and lakes. And crucially, the bodies are not stripped of their ethnic physicality to model other bodies. He shows off rather than shies away from the thick thighs and big asses and a coolly resolute gaze that exists in the various forms of feminine “I” being spoken from the inside of black communities.
Given all this, why is it then that Marshall picks not one woman artist among the approximately 31 works he chose to present alongside his own work in Kerry James Marshall Selects section of the exhibition? How is it that women who feature so prominently in his conception of the expansion of Western painting, can cite no painter who has influenced him or impressed herself on him — even if that influence or impression was an indication of what he did not want to do? Mind you, it’s not that Marshall or any artist needs to carry around a checklist and tick off accomplishments of the work as he goes, but this omission seems odd, a blind spot in an otherwise insightful and panoramic vision. If nothing else, the conversation around intersectionality has convinced many (me included) that the degree to which concerns around the power and visibility of blacks intersects with and informs the set of concerns around the power and visibility of women, we cannot march into the future unless we hold hands. To be able to do so, we have to see our partners and for that to occur sometimes it is incumbent on us to shine a light in corners that have been un-illuminated , to hold someone’s hand and say “we.”
Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry will be exhibited at The Met Breuer extension (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until January 29, 2017.