Kerry James Marshall, Garden Party, 2003, painting, acrylic, paper, canvas, 304.8 x 304.8 cm, courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, NY, and Koplin Del Rio, CA
*1972 in Antwerp, lives and works in Frankfurt am Main.
Philippe Pirotte is a Belgian art historian, critic, and curator of numerous international exhibitions. He studied Art History at Ghent University. In 1999 he co-founded the art center objectif_exhibitions in Antwerp. From 2005 to 2011, he was Director of Kunsthalle Bern. Since 2004, Pirotte has held the position of Senior Advisor of the Rijksakademie for Visual Arts in Amsterdam. In July 2012, he became Adjunct Senior Curator at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Next to that he is currently advising program director for the Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing. Pirotte will take up position as new director of the Städelschule Academy of Fine Arts in Frankfurt am Main in April 2014.
Kerry James Marshall, Vignette #2.25, 2008, painting, acrylic on polyvinyl, 186 x 155 cm, courtesy of the artist and Art Institute of Chicago
Kerry James Marshall, Vignette #2, 2005, painting, acrlyic on plexiclass, 186 x 155 cm, courtesy of the artist and Art Institute of Chicago
Kerry James Marshall, Vignette #2.50, 2008, painting, acrlyic on polyvinyl, 186 x 155 cm, courtesy of the artist and Art Institute of Chicago
Kerry James Marshall, Vignette #2.75, 2008, painting, acrlyic on polyvinyl, 186 x 155 cm, courtesy of the artist and Art Institute of Chicago
Kerry James Marshall, Vignette #3, 2005, painting, acrlyic on plexiglas, 186 x 155 cm, courtesy of the artist and Art Institute of Chicago
– Challenging Rococo and Impressionist Image Strategies
A Contribution by Philippe Pirotte
»By adopting characteristics of specific periods and styles, I would like for my paintings to call attention to the absence of works by Black artists in those moments where none is represented.«1 (Kerry James Marshall)
Kerry James Marshall is known for large-scale paintings, sculptures, and other objects that take up African-American life and history as their subject matter. His work often deals with the effects of the Civil Rights movement on domestic life, as well as working with elements of popular culture. But Kerry James Marshall’s main artistic project is a much more bold and ambitious one and has museums in mind from the outset. His work springs from his indignation at the black body’s lack of presence in western art history and art collections, and at the absence of any history and aesthetic ideas from the point of view of Africans and Afro-Americans. The impossibility to encounter their own history, their physical presence in representations of that history, markers or symbols of their identity in those museums, made him set out to fill that gap, to correct western art history, single handedly, by creating particular paintings to testify to Afro-American history, life, and aesthetics.
Right from the beginning of his career, he has been working to this purpose, expecting that his works would end up in those museums, or – in case they would not – creating an œuvre as an alternative, »museum-like« history of painting. His work is essentially revisionist, with many genres or historical moments figuring in it and, by doing so, unsettling the canon. When asked whether his oeuvre would contain references to the western art historical canon, the artist replied that he saw that history of art much rather as a shopping catalogue, just like other visual regimes from which he could choose, whether to use elements out of Classicism, Baroque, Rococo, Impressionism, or Modernist movements like Cubism, Action Painting, Post-Painterly Abstraction, etc. But Marshall’s undertaking involves more that just appropriating stylistic strategies as borrowed vernaculars.
For example, in his series, »Vignette« (2005), he addresses the (western) notion of the idyll, but he politicises its tranquil pictorial rendition in, for instance, 17th Century French landscape painting – where the idyll unfolds in terms of figures in relationship with a landscape. Looking to the classicist Poussin, but also to Fragonard and Boucher, Kerry James Marshall’s paintings in grisaille don’t reaffirm the promises of the Rococo’s indulgent pleasures, but question the absence of the black figure’s imagery in a fairly well-received genre that embodied the popular imaginary of the nascent bourgeois class in 19th Century Europe, one which notably benefited from the colonization of Africa.
Marshall’s »Vignettes« evoke nostalgic sentiments, but for times that never existed, because they refer to the Rococo period, where pleasure and excess reigned. In order »not to give in to all the promises of this decadent genre«2, he uses the soberness of grisaille, another historical painting technique - usually in shades of grey or near-monochrome in large decorative schemes in imitation of sculpture, - for his presentation of Afro-Americans in romantic scenes suggesting ideals of a better future. He adapts the themes of the idyllic encounter and moves the romantic imagery in an urban or suburban environment. The notion of the idyllic, as suggested in the etymology of the word (from the Greek »eidolon«, meaning »small picture«, diminutive of the Greek »eidos«, »form, picture«), underlines the concept that its essence resides in images, simultaneously reminding us of the very impossibility of the idyll’s existence outside of them. In Western consciousness, the idea of the idyll developed along completely different lines from, for example, the notion of utopia, which is invariably laden with political significance. Kerry James Marshall infuses the idyll with its allegorical but nonetheless »unreachable« alternative and, by doing so, causes it to slide between the two ideas, consciously reflecting the fact that »the unviability of the idyll’s existence outside the image becomes an instinctive component of a broader thought process about inclusion and exclusion«.3
Marshall’s stylistic parody goes further in his painting »Garden Party« (2003), in which he tackles Impressionism – the most popular painting style with mass-appeal. Impressionism is another genre epitomizing the western notion of the idyllic; it may well be encountered in the big museums, but it (almost) never represents people of colour. »Garden Party« portrays a group of coloured people at a party in an American suburban garden, and in it the painter is wondering if they too could lead a life of romantic, pastoral bliss, just as their colonial and slave masters seem to have enjoyed, at least in their representations. In order to confuse his public, Marshall reworked the painting with a pastiche »Impressionist«, sometimes even »Divisionist« (George Seurat’s »Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte«, 1884–86, is part of the collection of the Art Institute in Chicago, the city where Marshall lives) brushstroke, so that we would immediately identify the genre only to start doubting that identity on looking again. This subtle perversion of pervading and received imagery regimes in western art history, but also in popular culture, seems the only possibility for Marshall, who refutes more aggressive acts in art, exactly because he thinks westerners have been internalizing the false truth that ideas of beauty, progression and modernity cannot be connected with the black subject. That’s probably why he has always wanted to be »a history painter on a grand scale like Giotto and Géricault... but the moment when that kind of painting was really possible seems so distant, especially after Pollock and Polke. Nevertheless, I persist, trying to construct meaningful pictures that solicit identification with, and reflection on Black existential realities... «.4 (Kerry James Marshall in a letter to Arthur Jafa, written in the Summer of 1994; Documenta X).
1 www.ensembles.mhka.be/items/8099?lang=en [20.01.2014]
2 www.ensembles.mhka.be/items/8099?lang=en [20.01.2014]
3 Philippe Pirotte and Gerrit Vermeiren, »Idyl as to answer that picture«, in: Idyl, Middelheim Museum & objectif_exhibitions, 2005, p. 6.
4 Kerry James Marshall in a letter to Arthur Jafa, written in the Summer of 1994; Documenta X.