Kerry James Marshall is best known for foregrounding Black figures in “classical” White spaces with technical acuity rivaling Ingres and Delacroix.
Take the work “Exquisite Corpse Roller Blades.”
I approached this 10-foot wide painting from the right.
From afar, you think this is a woman sleeping.
But get closer:
Her head is flanked by a milky whiteness below and a fleshy pinkness. These hues seem to compress her black body. You wonder if she’s on her death bed, perhaps hallucinating/dreaming/thinking about the universe — there’s a system of stars above her, rendered with the soft amateurism of a child’s toy.
The straw-yellow hair affixed to her crown has a poignant solemnity. Her belongings and pretensions become visible further down her body: fur shoulder pads, bright pink nails. She holds, like a rosary, a necklace of bones.
Her midsection becomes impossibly twisted, a formal move following the contortions of traditional “exquisite corpse” games from 19th century France, but more importantly, echoing the simultaneous hyper-visibility and erasure of Black bodies. I thought of “Little Girl” by Kate Clark, which Claudia Rankine features in her book Citizen: an American Lyric. The figure’s butt and pelvis are both facing the viewer in an impossible, mutilated state of being.
It’s telling that Marshall composing his subject’s rear with the meticulous etching lines of Dürer. This adds an insistent dignity and beauty against a target of racist virile. “Everything I do is based on my understanding of art history,” Marshall said in an interview with Calvin Tomkins. Marshall continues to intervene in the historical representations that we inherit in every moment.
Across three distinct vertical sections, there is the relative freedom of youth at her feet, e.g. rollerblades; the reckoning with realities available and disclosed at her head; in the central panel, her hands literally finesse death. Does this Exquisite Corpse reflect a time traveling delirium of a woman (42?16? 97?) on her death bed?
“Exquisite Corpse Pot of Gold”
Here’s another remarkably complex picture.
In the bottom left you have brightly-colored, wilting flowers. KJM has previously shown flowers with comical smiley faces, e.g. “Exquisite Corpse Afro Wig.” That the flowers here have been scourged clean of a face is poignant.
This is a broken landscape, recalling the eeriness of Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina World.” It’s easy to miss the bone hiding at the base of the orange flowers, which grow between the hollow spaces of what looks to be a tibia and fibula, with elongated phalanges that couldn’t be human.
Further juxtaposition presents itself more as a joke: a house without foundation, a schematic rainbow leading to a pot of gold with chips as flimsy as chocolate coins.
From within this fake house emerges through the chimney a woman, dark skin and gilt hair, combing her waxen hair.
What’s particularly disturbing is who (or what) causes her to direct her appearance in this fashion. The hand outside of the mirror appears to be her own. But within the mirror, the hand appears disassociated, as if someone (or something) is forcing her to comb her hair, gripping the back of her head, a resting force capable of bashing her head into the mirror.
Look at the tension with which she grips the mirror.
True to the show’s title, “this is not a game.”
A one way signs appears at the base of the impossible house.
This is the direction of the “fire” in the chimney: within a society structured by White Supremacy, a “beautiful” body can be arrived at in only one way.
KJM’s art is so complex, expansive, clever. I’m glad this was my first in-person experience of his work. Each piece is so insightful — I hope you pay a visit before Dec 23!