Meeting the viewer’s gaze over her bare shoulder with inscrutable intensity, the unnamed subject of Small Pin-Up (Lens Flare) is at once entirely anonymous and acutely specific: while much of her silhouette and face are veiled in partial shadow, Marshall renders the details of her playful headband of pink hearts, the crimson facets of her gemstone earrings, the iridescent green of her polished thumbnail with exceptional care. Evident in all of Marshall’s Pin-Up paintings, these particularized details evoke the 1950s and 60s tradition of the ‘Pin-Up’ girl, in which beautiful, scantily clad women engage in seemingly mundane—yet highly specific—everyday activities. Describing the impetus behind the series, Marshall reflects: “This continues my over-arching project of representing aspects of Black Culture rarely made visible in contemporary picture making… I am also interested in foregrounding the black figure in popular genres of painting not usually associated with the socio-political frame in which much African American art is seen through. For example, in the big coffee table book survey, The Great American Pin-Up...not one of the sexy, dream girls is Black.” (the artist cited in Nicole J. Caruth, “Kerry James Marshall in Southern California,” ART21 Magazine, September 2008, n.p.) Unable to find a single black or Asian woman in the various magazines and beauty pageants he looked at, Marshall’s Pin-Up paintings rectify this absence by painting exactly that which has been excluded. Unlike traditional pin-up girls however, whose frivolous endeavors and commercial trappings depict women as the vapid embodiments of a sexualized American ideal, Marshall’s Pin-Ups stand poised and erect, recognizing the viewer’s voyeuristic presence with their own unblinking gaze. Small Pin-Up (Lens Flare) harnesses in all its subtlety and elegance the power of a woman whose body, despite her revealed skin, is not that which first catches our eye.
Achieving a fascinating interplay between color and form, light and shadow, figure and ground, Small Pin-Up (Lens Flare) emphatically testifies to the virtuosic technical abilities that have distinguished Marshall as amongst the most gifted figurative painters working today. Framed within a halo of light, the gleaming darkness of the central figure is all the more striking; invoking the work of great abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, the deep hues of Marshall’s ground and figure at once engage and offset each other to create a painting in which the subtlest highlight acts as crucial compositional element. Against the chromatic theatrics of the shimmering light flare, the deliberate and dramatic darkness of Marshall’s figure casts the artist’s extraordinary examination of the color black into exhilarating relief. In her essay for the 2016 Mastry catalogue, 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.” (John Keene, Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, 2016, p. 37) When questioned about the uncompromising blackness of his figures, the artist himself remarked, “Extreme blackness plus grace equals power. I see the figures as emblematic; I’m reducing complex variations of tone to rhetorical dimension: blackness.” (The artist quoted in Ibid., p. 59) Offset by the cascading shower of light and hue, there is indeed an indisputable grace to the inarguable darkness of Marshall’s figure; simultaneously, the flare of light emphasizes its own status as a captured image continually reiterating the painting's status within the very same rarefied visual culture it addresses.
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