“In painting African-American daily life, Mr. Marshall monumentalizes and ennobles it. Ordinary is extraordinary.”
Embodying the artist’s career-spanning commitment to rewriting the tenets of race and representation, Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Mask Boy) from 2014 exquisitely shares a moment of candor in the tradition of portraiture which has been historically reserved for White subjects in the artistic canon. Emphatically testifying to Marshall’s virtuosic painterly abilities, Untitled (Mask Boy) confronts art history on its own terms, asserting the primacy and presence of an African American narrative within the larger legacy of contemporary American painting. As if a glimpse of everyday life, the subject of Untitled (Mask Boy) stands oblivious to the spectator, confidently admiring himself in a mirror while holding a ritual mask of the Dogon people of Mali in West Africa. In a moment of unveiling, the subject bears himself to the viewer, having just revealed his likeness by removing the mask. The mirrored perspective that stares back at him is obscured, challenging our gaze and approach to the painting. Paired with colorful displays of cheerful patterning, Untitled (Mask Boy)’s depiction of a Black subject admiring himself reinvents the racial and cultural constructions of beauty. One of the most celebrated and influential artists of his generation, and the subject of a major retrospective at The Met Breuer in 2016-2017, Marshall has also exhibited at such prestigious institutions as The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. Evolving and expanding Black representation, Marshall’s Untitled (Mask Boy) reclaims the Black figure from the appropriative nature of White, Eurocentric painting.
Engaged in an insightful moment of self-assurance and clarity, the figure in Untitled (Mask Boy) reclaims his Blackness and defies constructed stereotypes of the Black experience. A vital, driving force in Marshall’s oeuvre is the repossession of Black figural depictions, often deliberately and dramatically darkening his figures’ skin tone to cast the exclusion of Black individuals from art history into radical relief. Scholar Helen Molesworth remarks, “Blackness is not presented by Marshall as an afterthought or as a form of special pleading; it is offered as a radical presence that shows how the very notions of beauty and truth that paintings and museums hold to be self-evident are premised on exclusions that are ethically, philosophically, and aesthetically untenable.” (Helen Molesworth quoted in: Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, 2016, p. 37) Untitled (Mask Boy) exudes an extraordinary presence not only in its skillful technique, but in the blissfully absorbed figure’s apathy for the viewer’s emphatic looking. Having taken off a traditional mask, the subjects asserts himself as an individual associated with, but not defined by, his heritage.
Central to the composition of Untitled (Mask Boy) is a ceremonial Dogon mask, strategically placed facing downwards and nearly out of view as if to reserve its sacred qualities. The Dogon mask, traditionally worn by men, is specific to dama, collective funerary rituals to ensure the safe passage of spirits of the deceased to the ancestral world. Marshall’s inclusion of this customary mask further asserts the importance of showcasing both the Black body and the Black experience not only embracing tradition but building an identity distinct from it and its stereotypes. Robert Storr notes that the figure is “self-consciously interacting with [an emblem of] African culture… [he] holds in his hands a Dogon mask which almost palpably anticipates his face being fit into its contours as if it had long awaited him like an ancestor who had traced his or her own lineage and found a match.” (Robert Storr quoted in: Exh. Cat., London, David Zwirner, Kerry James Marshall, Look See, October – November 2014, p. 14) A Brancusi-like, towering floor light in the background is another notable prop, and one which again alludes to the art historical canon. Marshall circumvents this reference by making it diminutive relative to the figure marking his greater importance.
"[He] holds in his hands a Dogon mask which almost palpably anticipates his face being fit into its contours as if it had long awaited him like an ancestor who had traced his or her own lineage and found a match.”
Untitled (Mask Boy) emphasizes exhibitionism; Marshall elevates the figure with a willingness to be on display while simultaneously looking at himself in an intimate, everyday moment. This depiction falls within a lineage of heroic figuration central to the practices of Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and evident in portraits by Italian High Renaissance painters. Rivera was deeply rooted in his cultural heritage and produced compositions of Mexican laborers which celebrated their routine gestures and ancestral influence in distinguished form. Rivera legitimizes Mexico’s indigenous peoples as artistic subjects, rendering them as protagonists of their own history and heirs to a rich, ancestral past. Marshall’s ambitions mimic Rivera’s, presenting narratives of Black people with evocative painterly marks and striking detail to establish the importance and worthiness of their existence regardless of traditional stereotypes. As Holland Cotter describes, “in painting African-American daily life, Mr. Marshall monumentalizes and ennobles it. Ordinary is extraordinary.” (Holland Cotter quoted in: “Kerry James Marshall’s Paintings Show What It Means to Be Black in America”, The New York Times, 20 October 2016, (online))
“Blackness is not presented by Marshall as an afterthought or as a form of special pleading; it is offered as a radical presence that shows how the very notions of beauty and truth that paintings and museums hold to be self-evident are premised on exclusions that are ethically, philosophically, and aesthetically untenable.”
Marshall has explained that his “overarching principle is still to move the black figure from the periphery to the center and, secondly, to have these figures operate in a wide range of historical genres and stylistic modes culled from the history of painting...I am using African American cultural and social history as a catalyst for what kind of pictures to make. What I’m trying to do in my work is address Absence with a capital A.” (Kerry James Marshall in conversation with Dieter Roeltraete, “An Argument for Something Else,” in: Nav Haq, Ed., Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff, Ghent 2014, p. 26). Untitled (Mask Boy) is an effort to address this absence and amend it, reflecting Marshall’s powerful and undeniable place as one of the artistic titans of this millennium.