Kerry James Marshall
*click on images to see all the details and historical references in each painting…
To what extent has our imaginary been colonized by stereotypical scenes, from art history and the world of media, whose protagonists are Caucasian figures? Might this not be both the cause and effect of our acute perception of “otherness,” with its wealth of negative implications? Kerry James Marshall, in his wide-ranging pictorial research, analyzes the condition of images, coming to terms with art history, contemporary icons and the dictatorship of an iconographic imaginary that is intrinsically discriminatory, showing how art can become a tool of reappropriation and expansion of our collective unconscious.
Through his practice, Marshall tackles what he has referred to as “the lack in the image bank.” He looks at images generated across a broad range of spheres—society, culture, art—and responds dialogically with a new body of images made from a variety of counter-perspectives.
We tend to assume there is one history of America: the mythical, heroic narrative of an all-inclusive, grand project that had at its inception the goal of embracing differences and treating all as equal. If we allow ourselves to be lost in this mythology, we overlook the more disturbing, less humane dimensions of our history. We don’t always learn that our nation’s triumphs were at times achieved on the backs of other people. Everyone should have both of these complicated narratives always in their consciousness.
[…] People ask me why my figures have to be so black. There are a lot of reasons. First, the blackness is a rhetorical device. When we talk about ourselves as a people and as a culture, we talk about black history, black culture, black music. That’s the rhetorical position we occupy. Somebody has to start representing that blackness in the extreme and letting it be beautiful.
- via artinamerica
Marshall’s understanding of society’s image bank casts it as a sort of empire—something that yields great currency and great powers of discrimination, and serves to impose and normalize ideals. The flow of “traffic” occurs in one direction only, meaning that individuals have relatively little control over, or ownership of, what they see. His ambition is to demonstrate that we can make images our own: reclaim and adapt them, and create new ones that represent the individual realities we actually exist in. Marshall wishes, in a sense, for us to understand the instability of images, and how art offers a special license to appropriate, change, create, and interpret them, then push them back into the public sphere. The sense of ownership he creates through his style of image making is something that should be considered progressive—necessary, even. It is a more inclusive, perhaps even communitarian, understanding of the role of representation as aiming to counter the massive hegemony of images by expanding the repertoire of our collective unconscious.
For example in Great America (1994), Marshall re-imagines a boat ride through the haunted tunnel of an amusement park as the Middle Passage of slaves from Africa to the New World. The dominant theme of these works is the transport of African slaves to America in the Middle Passage—the second or “middle” leg of the triangular trade of manufactured goods, slaves, and crops that transpired between Europe, Africa, and the American colonies from the colonial period until the middle of the 19th century. Marshall’s works explore the economic, sociological, and psychological aftermath of this foundational episode of US history. In his art, the past is never truly past: history exerts a constant, often unconscious pressure on the living.