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
A masterful construction of found imagery and Kerry James Marshall’s genre-redefining painting, the important early work A Little Romance from 1990 encapsulates the overarching conceptual aims of the artist’s oeuvre. The present work is grounded by a collage of pulp fiction novels featuring white figures illustrated on their covers, the gleaming idealized faces obscured under fields of yellow paint. Marshall uses this context to lay out his tranquil, contemplative scene, crafting a dialectic between an established visual language and the artist’s own novel artistic approach. In light of its conflicting and intersecting elements, the present work speaks to racial legacies embedded within artmaking and visual culture, and the power of art to shift these seemingly indomitable paradigms from within.
Marshall’s composition is as much an act of celebration as that of defacement, taking the omnipresence of white representation in romantic narratives, and subverting that received structure by using artifacts of the cultural idiom to construct a pointedly black narrative. Lying upon a bed of romance novels, Marshall’s figure looks up contemplatively, his sense of repose and expression implying access to an internal, dream-like state. Above him, two heads float in space, surrounded by expressionistic rosettes and clouds. Rather than depicting a specific representation or group of figures, Marshall orients his painting around visual tropes using his composition as a means of radically inserting blackness into exclusionary archetypes. Heightening this effect, Marshall’s figures’ skin tones are a deep, nearly jet black, a signature style the artist has used throughout his oeuvre. Marshall employs this hue to locate race as central to his body of work, and also as a means to engage, “the entire apparatus of painting as it has arrived in the twenty-first century—its history, materials, discursive debates, emotional resonances, and glaring blind spots—in order to entrench his paintings within the discipline.” (Lanka Tattersall, “Black Lives, Matter,” in Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, 2016, p. 69) Aimed not just at the imagery of the contemporary moment as a basis for representation, but also the bedrock on which contemporary visual culture is built, in works like A Little Romance, Marshall uses black pigment as a vehicle to radically reassess the boundaries of who can be the face of a cultural product.
The splendor of the artist’s full virtuosic painterly vocabulary is on view in A Little Romance. Marshall’s figures are embedded in a cosmos of floriated compositional detail and tempestuous strokes dripping with pigment, evoking the painterly ferocity of the Abstract Expressionists. Conversely, the artist’s measured paint handling in his delineation of each figure’s features crafts a sense of emotional access and interiority that belies the relative simplicity of their compositions. Paint and collage, original imagery and appropriated printed material all collide in the present work. Marshall’s multimedia approach results in a scene that, while visually sophisticated and encompassing a flurry of activity, is remarkably succinct in its overall effect.
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. Through exposure to artists such as Charles White, David Hammons, and the tutelage of Betye Saar, Marshall’s practice developed from more abstract collage and assemblage, to works which featured painting in tandem with these elements as a means to address the underlying questions of representation. Describing his artistic objectives, Marshall explains: “Indeed, early on I made a commitment to drawing figures, to mastering the art of figuration…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,” Nav Haq, ed., Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff, Ghent 2014, p. 21) Taking manifestations of representation as they exist in the world, and using the artist’s visionary point of view, the present work does exactly that, demonstrating Marshall’s power, ingenuity and enduring commitment to rewriting the rules of portraiture and representation.
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