The artist in conversation with Dieter Roeltraete in “An Argument for Something Else,” in Ed., Nav Haq, Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff, Ghent 2014, p. 26
Displaying a striking conceptual clarity and hailing from a single distinguished private collection, Kerry James Marshall’s Study for ‘Slow Dance,’ Lost Boys: AKA Black Al and Portrait of Nat Turner on Loan from Hell epitomize the artist’s singular, irrepressible vision and commitment to reinventing the tenets of race and representation.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama at the outset of the Civil Rights Movement and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Marshall grew up keenly aware of the power imbalances inherent to the concept of race manifested in visual art. As an adolescent, Marshall was exposed to the Social Realist work of Charles F. White and the groundbreaking Conceptualist work being made by David Hammons. The influence of these revolutionary black artists, coupled with the encouragement of supportive teachers, inspired an early love of art in the young Marshall. Later, in art school, he further developed his skills and gained a critical awareness of the prevailing narratives of Western art history. During this time, under the tutelage of Betye Saar, Marshall took an interest in the collage and assemblage of Romare Bearden, Joseph Cornell and Kurt Schwitters, working in an abstract mode that emulated their styles.
By 1980, Marshall had moved beyond this abstract pictorial strategy, painting the seminal A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, which endures as a pivotal summation of the isolation, agony and invisibility black artists experience in an often exclusionary art world. Since that time, Marshall has upended the Western representational tradition, enacting a career-long commitment to the portrayal of black subjects, inserting them into dream scenarios, historical narratives, contemporary scenes, memories and allegories. Describing his conceptual development from abstraction to figuration, as well as his artistic objectives, Marshall explains, “indeed, early on I made a commitment to drawing figures, to mastering the art of figuration. This did not exclude the possibility of exploring abstraction and so forth, but it seemed essential to me to actually master representation before abandoning it. Furthermore, since the overwhelming majority of the bodies on display in art and advertising are white, producing images of black bodies was important to offset the impression that beauty is synonymous with whiteness” (Kerry James Marshall in conversation with Dieter Roeltraete in “An Argument for Something Else,” in Ed., Nav Haq, Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff, Ghent 2014, p. 21). Study for ‘Slow Dance,’ Lost Boys: AKA Black Al and Portrait of Nat Turner on Loan from Hell, all executed between 1990-93, exemplify this sociopolitical conceptual aim, embodying three crucial thematic veins within Kerry James Marshall’s universally lauded oeuvre. Taken together, these three works serve as bellwethers and exemplars of Marshall’s artistic output, marking the beginning of the artist’s mature practice, and laying the groundwork for his widely acclaimed gallery shows and retrospectives. Individually, Study for ‘Slow Dance,’ Lost Boys: AKA Black Al and Portrait of Nat Turner on Loan from Hell can be interpreted as a visual line in Marshall’s manifesto, demonstrating the artist's power, ingenuity and enduring commitment to rewriting the rules of portraiture.
In painting Lost Boys: AKA Black Al, Kerry James Marshall assumes the role of history painter, taking various art historical, literary and contemporary allusions and melding them into a single composition. Part of a larger body of portraits depicting Lost Boys, the present work is an archetype of the perils of black boyhood. Marshall plays on the Lost Boys of J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan, a group of boys in Never Never Land who never have to grow up, and applies “it to a concept of being lost: lost in America, lost in the ghetto, lost in public housing, lost in joblessness, and lost in illiteracy” (Kerry James Marshall in conversation with Charles Rowell, “An Interview with Kerry James Marshall,” Callaloo, vol. 21 no. 1, p. 263). Despite the implied tragedy in the narrative and title of the work, Marshall grants the work a sense of celebration and art historical flourish, embedding Black Al in a bed of floriated compositional detail and expressionistic strokes dripping with pigment, evoking the painterly ferocity of the Abstract Expressionists and the solemnity of early American elegiac portraiture. Marshall monumentalizes his subject through these techniques, giving them a sense of place, importance and sanctity by utilizing the visual codes of the European representational canon.
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