In the eyes of European curators and collectors, Kerry James Marshall is a quintessentially African-American artist, dealing with the idiosyncrasies of a place far removed from the Old World. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but this can be the only explanation for the complete absence of Marshall’s work in European museum collections. Only two private collectors, one in London and one in Amsterdam, have actually bought paintings by the artist who in the United States is considered one of the greats of his generation and whose work fetches premium prices at auction.
The first time a mainstream European audience got to see Marshall’s large-scale canvases was at Documenta X (1997). Ten years later the artist returned to Kassel and astounded Documenta visitors with intimate and intense black portraits, which connected really well with the seventeenth century fare that regularly adorns the walls of Wilhelmshöhe Castle. But ever since, those interested in Marshall’s work would have to buy a plane ticket to Chicago or New York to see it. Until now. On the eve of the artist’s sixtieth birthday M HKA in Antwerp presents a first full-scale overview, which subsequently travels to Copenhagen, Barcelona and Madrid.
Kerry James Marshall, Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green series, 2012; Photo Wolfgang Thaler; Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver.
Upon entering Painting and Other Stuff the first thought that pops up is how shortsighted those European curators have been. Yes of course, Marshall’s world consists mostly of all-American urban housing projects, churches, and nightclubs and is exclusively populated by African-Americans. Heroes of the civil rights movement – King, Kennedy, Malcolm X – are referred to left and right. But even though Marshall describes his artistic mission as compensating for “a lack in the image bank”, he does more than create an alternative for the dominant, white visual culture on the other side of the ocean. By painting his protagonists in the darkest shade of black, effectively turning them into templates, he goes beyond their individual identity and poses the universal question about the causal connection between who we are and how we perceive and represent.
In order to do this Marshall uses every technique and medium available to him. He cuts images from popular magazines and transforms them into flickering video-bombardments of stereotypes or collages of newly constructed beauty. In comic strips he mixes superhero language and African mythology. And his inkjet prints of nightly portraits have an almost tactile velvety skin.
Kerry James Marshall, Nude (Spotlight), 2009; Courtesy of the Defares Collection, The Netherlands.
But he is at his absolute best when painting. His large, figurative canvases, executed in bold bright colors, are reminiscent of Harlem Renaissance-artists who mixed academic styles with folk art. But Marshall’s references to the art historical canon cannot be missed either. Barnett Newman gets a nudge in three near-monochromes complete with “zips”: not red, yellow, and blue but red, black, and green – the colors of the African liberation-flag. Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks gets quoted and criticized in 7 am Sunday Morning, as is the entire rococo era in the Vignettes series. Marshall’s Nude (Spotlight) is a wonderfully contemporary sister to Manet’s Olympia.
Restricting the presentation to those paintings alone would have resulted in a fantastic show. It’s understandable that the curators wanted to offer the full range of Marshall’s creative genius, but even though the underlying theme is clear and ever-present, the sheer abundance and diversity of what’s on display unfortunately reflects the offhand nonchalance of the exhibition title. Painting and Other Stuff misses focus – a flaw amplified by the entirely open exhibition layout. Three clumps of thematically linked paintings – easily the highlights – aren’t enough to compensate.
Still, M HKA needs to be congratulated on its effort to bring this American giant to Europe. Finally we get to fill a gap in our artistic image bank which has stayed blank far too long.
(Image on top: Kerry James Marshall, Lost Boys AKA Black, Johnny, 1993; Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, NY, and Koplin Del Rio, CA.)