New York

Kerry James Marshall

Jack Shainman Gallery

Though not a self-taught artist, Kerry James Marshall has chosen to incorporate aspects of outsider art into his practice, placing the flat forms of his simplified figures within a shallow pictorial depth. Marshall’s use of naive art is deceptive, however, because he transforms the cheerfulness and charm we associate with such art into something subversive. As rooted in the tradition of the Blues, as he is grounded in his knowledge of Hollywood’s attitudes toward African-Americans, Marshall uses his knowledge of high art, folk art, and Pop culture to celebrate African-American culture and to question the various ways in which America has constructed social identity.

This exhibition was divided into two groups of works: large unstretched paintings and small paintings done on panels. In all of the paintings Marshall renders his figures in indigo. The choice is telling—it is a color we associate with blackface entertainment. In one of the small paintings, Marshall painted a portrait of Dorothy Dandridge—one the first African-American performers to achieve star status in the movies for her roles in Carmen Jones, 1954, and Porgy and Bess, 1959—flanked by covers of harlequin romances featuring bright-eyed blondes. The juxtaposition of the ideal American woman with Dandridge’s portrait suggests the degree to which America continues to psychologically displace people by perpetuating mythologized images of physical beauty.

Frank Stella could say “what you see is what you see” but Marshall knows such utterances mask the truth. Marshall’s work forces the viewer to see through his or her own prejudices. In Terra Incognita, 1992, he juxtaposes a found 19th-century image depicting an African warrior and a sailing ship with his own image of an ocean liner and an African-American man dressed as a waiter. The waiter is in the middle ground walking towards the viewer, his hand held up in the air as if balancing a tray. The juxtaposition of the waiter (one kind of servant) with the warrior (a potential slave) is at once straightforward and provocative. One is reminded that the term “middle passage” referred to the enforced journey many Africans were forced to make from their homeland to slavery in America. Thus the myth of the ocean liner as a promise of romance and leisure is seen from a very different perspective—that of the outsider.

Marshall’s use of outsider art is not an esthetic decision but an ethical one. By utilizing paint and compositional modes associated with black folk art, Marshall is able to define the terms of his refusal to assimilate. After all, if he were to align himself with those theorists who proclaim painting is dead, he would in effect become their servant.

John Yau