Kerry James Marshall, a preeminent artist of today, presents a strong voice of an identity for a middle-aged African American who has witnessed changes in his lifetime. He addresses issues of race and culture in a Post-Modern style that recognizes past, current and other issues that his generation has faced. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, but moved to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1963, a fact not lost on the subjects of his paintings.
Marshall paints large acrylic canvas and plexi-glass images with wit and irony. Sometimes he’s influenced by comic books and in other ways he commands the authority of historical paintings, using a structure he says is inspired by artists like Gericault. In his Post-Modern style of art, it’s easy to see the inspiration of many twentieth century movements, such as the collage effects of Cubism and splashes like an Abstract Expressionist painting. One would guess he is great admirer of Romare Bearden, too. But he combines these historical styles with realism and most of all he presents an urban, black culture without taking himself, or life, too seriously. In a series of large paintings from 1994, he portrayed life in various public housing complexes, particularly in Chicago, where he currently lives. He hints at both undesirable aspects of these complexes, and certain joys that can come through community, such as the planting flowers and Easter baskets. In his own words, he believed that moments of happiness and finding the goodness of life can still be present. Marshall’s titles cleverly make us think about things with references to larger society. One example: “Better Homes, Better Gardens.” However, the housing projects are just one of the many themes that Marshall has been exploring in his art.
All of Marshall’s paintings relate to his identity as an African American. The people he paints are indeed very black, the deepness of their color being the theme of his presentation. One painting called Black Painting is black on black, with many variations of black. He was inspired by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, recognizing how it was so possible to be present yet invisible in American life.
A recent series is of vignettes, romances meant to be a footnote to a larger story. In these illustrations, he flirts with kitsch, the type of art that is supposed to make you the viewer feel good and good about yourself for liking it. He makes these paintings primarily monochromatic; specifically they are almost exclusively painted in shades of black, white and gray. In contrast to these neutral tones, pink hearts accent the sky, reminding us of the fun of romance.
Marshall often portrays couples and seems to like the balance of male and female in his large, major paintings as well as those paintings presented in pairs. Love seems to be a recurring theme in his art, but so is the home, whether it is outside in an urban setting, or an interior where groups of unrelated people can meet and congregate in a domestic setting. He is witty but never trite.
In a group of paintings dedicated to deceased heroes of African American achievement and the Civil Rights movement, he always includes a living woman with glittered angel wings in the composition, a so-called living angel. Those who are above in a heavenly enclave also have wings. These interior settings resemble a living room, and Marshall hints that feelings of tranquility in the present life are possible because others have gone beforehand and made things better. He leaves the viewer with a lot to contemplate, without making his message too obtuse or complex. Even if a subject, like romance, seems commonplace, we always must take Marshall seriously and stop to observe what he is communicating.
Marshall decided to become an artist at age five, when his kindergarten teacher brought out a scrapbook of pictures…..Thankfully, he never changed his mind and he continues to show us a diverse display of the ideas and pictures that have shaped a colorful life.