Kerry James Marshall, Painting and Other Stuff
Is it possible to reinvent yourself completely? After all, it gets to the point when you just don't feel like you. Pick a university in some far-off town, move house, dump your partner, move abroad... Some call it 'running away', some, 'finding yourself'. Of course, 'you' are the least of your problems: family, friends, colleagues, even new encounters treat you in a certain way, as if the structure is already established in the way you act, look, or perceive yourself to look.
The American artist, Kerry James Marshall, applies this dilemma to the 'African American experience', in complete awareness that he's dealing here with pure fantasy, a bundle of preconceptions. Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, Marshall became established in US in the 1980s and was introduced to Europe with the 1997 edition of the Kassel-based art fair, Documenta X. Now he's at Fundació Tàpies with Kerry James Marshall. Painting and other stuff, an exhibition put together by the award-winning curator, Nav Haq.
While best known as a painter, Marshall here utilises the wider language of contemporary art, the photograph, sculpture, print, the installation, in an attempt to fill what he calls 'a vacuum in the image bank’, that is, to slot the 'black image' into history. Physical evidence of this image bank is found on Tàpies' basement floor, where piles of photographs and postcards show all the famous bits of art history. There are Botticellis and Berninis, Warhols and Pollocks - but what's in a name? We may well ask. Is it that they're all white, as Marshall might suggest? Though they are also all men, all Western, mostly paintings and sculptures... All have become prominent thanks to a bunch of other people aside from the artist himself: the theorists, art institutions, collectors, the media.
So how do you reinsert a so-called 'minority group' into a historical structure built of selective criteria, consolidated by the negation of so many presences? Marshall knows and shows that this is an impossible task. This seems to me to be the thought behind his impersonal, enigmatic portraits, where faces appear impassive or in shadow, figures dressed in the bright clichéd clothing of the 18th century, (Believed to be a Portrait of David Walker (Circa 1830), 2009), playfully posed like 1950s advertisements, (Vignette, 2008), or pinned down in the lurid lighting of pulp fiction, (Nude (Spotlight), 2009).
More than a piece of social criticism these artworks seek, individually and as an exhibition, to dismantle the idea of the homogenous entity and its threatening 'tribal' associations, be it the 'African American', the 'woman', the 'artist', or the 'Westerner'. And what we're left with is a more empathic sense of absence. Where is that person who rifles through those arty images looking for herself? Who leafs through magazines, but can't fit himself into that fashion?
Yet Marshall also acknowledges the powerful desire behind picking up that magazine in the first place; that just as we need some reference, some kind of template, in order to reinvent ourselves as someone, this process of trying to integrate is as imperative to us as it is doomed. That sense of wanting to get in and wanting to get out is epitomised in his large painting Garden Party (2003), where groups, of various skin tones, eye each other down from the house and up from the garden. Is the issue here racial? Or is there a more fundamental question being asked - 'Where's the party?'
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, theatre and dance in a way that human beings can understand. For more about Barcelona arts, check her blog: www.lookingfordrama.com