Striking in vibrancy, resplendent with color and impressive in scale, Red Hot Deal is a powerful example of Kerry James Marshall’s text paintings and the first of its kind to come to auction. The viewer is presented with a very clear, succinct structure overlaid with gestural strokes of red, orange and yellow hues.
Marshall is identified as a serious painter of social history; a history that references the African American experience. The iconography of his art is, by design, stylized to fittingly reflect and extend the accomplished artistry of pioneering African American artists who came before him such as Aaron Douglas and Charles White among others. Nevertheless, the overall presence of Marshall's own aesthetic approach to painting remains the most powerful characteristic of his work. As Holland Cotter described of the artist’s practice, “Mr. Marshall has absorbed enough personal history, American history, African-American history and art history to become one of the great history painters of our time” (Holland Cotter, “Kerry James Marshall’s Paintings Show What It Means to Be Black in America,” The New York Times, 21 October 2016, p. C17).
In the present work, the artist has presented three bold, stenciled words, as a stacked composition. By enlarging and framing the text to touch all four corners of the canvas, he creates a moment of maximum visual impact. Similar to street signs or tabloid headlines, these words are both distinctly urban and matter-of-fact in their presence. While Red Hot Deal is a departure from Marshall’s large scale figurative paintings, language has always retained a critical position in the artist’s oeuvre. From the bold signage in his The Garden Project paintings and the beauty product labels in De Style (1993) to listing names of the dead in his Souvenir paintings and the powerful slogans in his Black Power relief prints, text is essential to Marshall’s work.
Like artist Christopher Wool, who is interested in the way that text can function as image, exploiting the pictorial qualities of his letters to highlight their status as shapes, Marshall’s disregard for the tradition of linearly composed sentences has the end result of stressing the words themselves as the subject of the painting without losing their communicative utility. Marshall pushes the text’s loaded meanings to the forefront of the viewer’s environment. Similar to Ed Ruscha, Marshall employs the power of language to communicate socio-political tropes regarding power, notoriety, money, entrée and autonomy.
Red Hot Deal can be read in two ways. The first, as an unadulterated lifting from ad-speak. The second, read within the context of the art market— gallery and auction space— the text takes on a more critical and self-reflective tenor. Kerry James Marshall has stated that his works are in part meant for an art audience: “If you intend to participate in the discipline at the highest level, you have an obligation, I think, to address those issues. Which means that one of your primary audiences is other artists and people who know about art” (ibid, p. 74).
Red Hot Deal was included in Jack Shainman’s 2013 exhibition Dollar for Dollar. With paintings aptly titled Black Owned, On Sale Black Friday and Why Pay More, the exhibition explored the socio-political aspects of the American economy and how our society values materialistic goods. As Marshall reflected on this particular series of paintings, “I’ve taken a lot of these slogans that announce the intention of a thing to be bought and to address itself as an object that is as a part of the system of commodifications and the system of valuation and the system of consumption. These things announce themselves to be that, but there is something else about them. They are not just plain signs like any other sign you’d see in the supermarket or any sign that you’d see in the department store, there is another dimension to the work that participates in a dialogue with the history of painting” (the artist cited in Victoria Valentine, “On ‘Black Friday’ A Look Back at Kerry James Marshall’s Dollar for Dollar Exhibition,” CultureType, 28 November 2014).
In every way exemplary of Marshall’s dedicated approach to painting, Red Hot Deal presents the viewer with a formally arresting and intellectually rigorous artistic experience.
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