Kerry James Marshall
“For me,” artist Kerry James Marshall told an MCA audience, “the thing that has the greatest transformative capacity in the art world today, in terms of what people expect to see when they go to the art museum, is a painting that has a black figure in it, because 95 percent of all the other paintings you see are going to have white figures in them. The whole history of representation is built on the representation of white folks. Now, all of that stuff is good, so you have to figure out how to get good like that, and then get in there on the terms that are relevant for now.”
The hugely influential Marshall – major exhibits in major museums, a personal favourite of the Obamas – has certainly ‘gotten good.’ He has won a MacArthur, the Wolfgang Hahn Prize, an Americans for the Arts National Award, the 2016 Rosenberger Medal. His paintings are built around black figures. In his Garden Party, for instance, Marshall has inserted people of various ethnicities, including his wife, into a 19th Century Impressionist-styled painting.
Manet, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne – these brilliant artists’ garden scenes were often set in expansive European plots. Marshall’s Garden Party – created between 2004 and 2013 – is set in the greens of a vibrant social housing project. It’s housed on a 274 by 324 cm sheet of workaday unstretched canvas.
Garden Party is one of thirty pieces of Marshall’s Collected Works on display at the Rennie Museum until November 3rd. It’s a stunning show curated by Marshall himself. He flew to Vancouver and was meticulous in setting up each painting and each sculpture just as he saw fit.
Bob Rennie has been actively collecting Marshall’s work for years. Our tour guide – a thoughtful, bright fifth year Art History student from UBC – walked us through the paintings, offering insights into Marshall’s process and mindset.
The eloquent Marshall was born in Alabama, grew up in Watts and now lives on the South Side of Chicago. He earned his BFA at the Otis Institute in Los Angeles. Here, in reference to Mastry – a 2016 show – Marshall talks about learning the language of serious art.
Marshall, we learn from our tour guide, embraces the importance of representational art in bringing new colour into old museums. He challenges art audiences to greet African sculptures with the same high brows they offer to the Greeks. Marshall builds series around the red, black and green of the Pan African flag. He is purposeful in his artistic allusions and his inclusion of symbols – religious, cultural, historical. He references the words of black thought leaders: Angela Davis, Ralph Ellison, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X.
And he is particularly nuanced in the way in which he paints with the colour black. “Blackness can have complexity. Depth. Richness,” he says. Black is not for shading or background in Marshall’s work. Black is a focal colour.
Marshall is here to celebrate the beauty of blackness. “You don’t have much of a history of black people trying to represent themselves as an ideal, or representing themselves with a kind of ordinary grace,” Marshall says, “where a person isn’t standing in for some sort of political symbol, but is simply elegant because they’re there. And still it’s a beautiful picture and that’s all it is.”
We see Marshall’s depth in his Angel of Mercy, pictured in our header photo. This young man has been shot by a 9 mm gun, yet he is dignified, uncompromising, facing us head-on.
Here is a sampling of the Marshalls on display at The Rennie …
Sculpture (Ibeji) 2006
Untitled. c 1980
Untitled (La Venus Negra) 1992
As Seen On TV. 1998-2000
“If people keep telling you you can’t do a thing,” Marshall told The Guardian in 2017, “then you need to find a really good reason to continue. If someone tells you you can’t do something, how will you know? If someone tells you something is impossible, how will you know?”
Until November 3rd, you can sign up for free, guided tours of Kerry James Marshall Collected Works. Register in advance as the tour groups are limited in size and book up quickly.
Written by Elizabeth Newton
Header: Angel of Mercy. 1992