People

Kerry James Marshall

For we magazine addicts, the September issue has always been notable, particularly in the world of fashion. Just how thick will it be? What kind of new fashions will be featured inside? And, highlight, who will be on the cover?

Vogue Magazine has led the way for September issues. So much so, the work that goes into the building of Vogue’s September Issue spawned a movie.

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For September of 2020, Vogue asked two renowned contemporary artists – Kerry James Marshall and Jordan Casteel – to create paintings for the magazine’s high profile cover. The artists were given free rein to depict whomever they wanted, imagined or real, in whatever way they chose. This person was to wear a dress created by one of the four designers chosen by Vogue for the issue.

Marshall elected to paint an evening dress by Off-White on a character he imagined. “I’m trying to build into her expression that she’s not dependent on the gaze of the spectator,” Marshall told Vogue. “I’m here and you can see me, but I’m not here for you.” This woman, like many of Marshall’s subjects, has skin painted so dark as to be “at the edge of visibility.” “If you say, ‘Black is beautiful,” Marshall continues, “you have to show it. And what I’m doing is showing it at the extreme. Yes, it is black—very black—and it is very beautiful.”

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Working Study 2, 2020. Kerry James Marshall

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The hugely influential Marshall – major exhibits in major museums, a personal favourite of the Obamas – has won a MacArthur, the Wolfgang Hahn Prize, an Americans for the Arts National Award, the 2016 Rosenberger Medal.

“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.”

In his Garden Party, pictured below, Marshall has inserted people of various ethnicities, including his wife, into a 19th Century Impressionist-styled painting.
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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 was one of thirty pieces of Marshall’s Collected Works on display at the Vancouver Rennie Museum’s 2018 exhibit. It was 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 through that exhibit – a thoughtful, bright fifth year Art History student from UBC – walked us through the paintings, offering insights into Marshall’s process and mindset.

Kerry James 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.

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Marshall, we learned 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 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, as in the Vogue cover above, 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.”

 

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Angel of Mercy. 1992

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Blot. 2014


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Sculpture (Ibeji) 2006


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Untitled (Black Empire Suite) 2015

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Untitled. c 1980

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Untitled (La Venus Negra) 1992

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Untitled, 2006

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As Seen On TV. 1998-2000

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Wake. 2003-2005

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“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?”

Written by Elizabeth Newton
www.creatorsvancouver.com

Header: Vogue. Photo – Kerry James Marshall

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Elizabeth Newton

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