It is great news that David Zwirner is going to represent African-American artist Kerry James Marshall. I met Marshall ten years ago, days after the opening of his wonderful show at the Camden Arts Center in 2005. Then I ran into his art when attending the opening of the Crystal Waters Museum (Walmart’s Museum) in Bentonville, Arkansas.
There is something naif and uneducated about his art but I guess that is the point. The figures are black but their blackness is not brown but black to the point of becoming invisible. One has to look in order to see and I think that is a wonderful allegory of the place of black people in the Twentieth Century. They had (and still have) to fight to be noticed and heard. I will always remember my first trip to Cape Town. I had to ask where the black people were because I couldn’t see them. Well, they were serving and their job was not to be seen.
“Blackness has always been stigmatised, even amongst black people who flee from the density of that blackness. Some black people recoil from black people who are that dark because it has always been stigmatised.
“In Western Catholicism darkness was evil, in the colonial and imperial context dark skin was always weak, powerless, subjugated. If you see these images all the time they become commonplace, and they no longer become a spectacular or sensational thing,” he says.
Having said this, Kerry James Marshall’s colours highlight objects and thus, culture. The context becomes an opportunity to live. His subjects are not just going through life but they are living life. Untitled (Pink Towel) is a striking and beautiful image, not least for the darkness of the woman’s skin: she’s very black, not brown. Her darkness highlights the yellow polish on her fingernails, her cocktail ring, the pale pink rim of her eye and the pink towel. All Marshall’s figures are painted this tone, and the reasons aren’t only aesthetic.
In Untitled (Beauty Queen), a black beauty queen wears a crown and pink spotted gown beneath her winner’s sash. She’s muscular, big hands clasp her delighted face. None of Marshall’s female figures are skinny; they’ve got broad shoulders and full thighs. They look out at you from the pictures: confident, self possessed, sexy as hell. Untitled (Beach Towel) shows a girl in her underwear and pink flip flops, sitting on the grass. Her head’s tilted back, lips pressed together. She doesn’t care what you think of her. These are images that challenge the Western ideals of art historical beauty where the woman is supposed to be possessed by the viewer. Because of their ‘darkness’ and their non challance, Kerry James Marshall’s women are, by definition, difficult to control.
His paintings draw attention to ideas about female beauty, and who decides who’s beautiful or not. “I bought a Taschen book called The Great American Pin-Up and it’s full of these titillating images of girls with their skirts flying up but not one single black or Asian figure in it. When I started making pin-up images it was a response to the absence in a book like Taschen’s, or the early history of Playboy magazines, or Miss America or Miss Universe pageants. All those pageants, at one time, didn’t put a black female body in the competition for who is the most beautiful or who is the most desirable.”
If invisibility is a theme of his work, it is also a concern in his career. “When I was growing up, I recognised my absence in the pantheon. You have to do something about that, and ask what’s the price of the ticket for getting in there? Why them, why not me? “There’s no real value in working in obscurity and then there’s the paradigm of not being discovered until you’re dead. That didn’t appeal to me, it doesn’t make sense to stand on the sideline and watch other people getting the kind of attention, the praise and satisfaction from having done something that people think is important.”
That invisibility is reverted in the art world where to be black is to be an exception. I will always remember when I took a black friend of mine to see a piece that I was selling at Phillips and the security guy came to check on us because of the colour of his skin. Regarding this issue, Kerry James Marshall says: “As a black person I’m used to going to places in which I might be the only black person that shows up there. This experience has an effect on the way you see yourself in the world and what it means to be black in the world’. Once I asked the Director of the Courtauld why there were no black people studying art history. She answered: ‘they go to careers where they can make money to escape their current situation’. All said.
Kerry James Marshall: Look See is at David Zwirner, London W1 (020 3538 3165;) to 22 November
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