Kerry James Marshall
As one of the most influential living painters of social history, Kerry James Marshall’s Draw Me, is a powerful example of the artist’s masterful revision of African American experience through art. Executed in 2012, the sweeping canvas of the present work unveiled in the widely celebrated Vienna Secession show entitled, Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green, is a powerful dialectic of the overt and sub-textual manifestations of black consciousness. Draw Me is part of this acclaimed 16-part series of works that examines the visual representation of black Identity via a distinct iconography, stylized to not only reflect the accomplished artistry of pioneering African American artists throughout history, but also to circumvent their social and cultural marginalization. For Marshall, the uncompromising portrayal of the profile of the black female figure in Draw Me is a sharp departure from historical representations that deflected the idea of blackness “by compromising it, by either fragmenting it, or otherwise distorting it” (The artist in "Kerry James Marshall on Painting Blackness as a Noun Vs. Verb," The Phaidon Folio, 7 June, 2017).
The lustrous surface of Draw Me is part of Marshall’s complex visual strategy of invoking the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955 during the genesis of the Civil Rights Movement, Marshall swiftly relocated to Los Angeles after the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of a local Baptist church that resulted in the death of four girls, only to live through the largest urban rebellion of the Civil Rights era, the Watts Riots. The present work’s horizontal splashes of saturated bands of vibrant acrylic are not only indicative of the vigor in Marshall’s gestural brushstrokes, but are also reflective of a politically charged tricolor palette of red, black, and green – the colors of the flag of the Pan-African liberation movement – that are still used as an emblem of Black Power. The flawless integration of tricolor in Draw Me incites historical specificity in an effort to shape modern discourse surrounding Black Power’s legacy: “You know, black power has not gone far enough! Black power began to construct new framework for the development of black people, including through visual forms. The point was to counter racism and inequality. But racism still persists. The goals [of the Black Power Movement] have not yet been realized” (Rael Jero Salley, The New Danger of the Pure Idea: Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green, Vienna Succession, 2012, p. 4).
Marshall’s profound visual vocabulary effortlessly links the Black Power Movement with the skillful artistic practice in Draw Me, which draws direct inspiration from the Abstract Expressionist movement and Color Field painting. In Draw Me, Marshall elegantly references the aesthetic achievements of the giants of that school, particularly Barnett Newman, by incorporating the same flatness and nuances in planes of color. The series that Draw Me belongs to, Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green, is also an explicit re-appropriation of Barnett Newman’s monumental group of 1960s abstract paintings, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, that addressed post-war anxieties and fear through color. Marshall inscribed the neon text ‘DRAW ME’ in relief along the surface of the present work to highlight the role this kind of abstraction has taken in further pushing African American subject matter from the mainstream in art. By superimposing his own pictorial vision on top of this art historical template, Marshall reinserts a black subjectivity into artistic discourse.
The careful articulation of the progression of the African American female profile in Draw Me intentionally blurs the distinction between ambiguity and specificity. By enclosing the central figure of the entirely opaque African-American female profile in the deepest shade of black acrylic with several preliminary illustrations of the female silhouette, “black” becomes a mnemonic device, a hue, symbol, metaphor and an idea. Marshall inscribes the first name and initials of his wife, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, beneath two of the transparent female profiles in an ingenious personalization of the identity of the African American female. The artist even inscribes his own initials and trademark under the central female silhouette, effortlessly oscillating between the anonymity of mass-production and the highly intimate connection in the present work.
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