New York

Kerry James Marshall

By synthesizing Leon Golub’s monumentality—the mythic quality he finds even in the basest and most brutal reality—with Robert Colescott’s raucous, satirical/parodic image-crunching, Kerry James Marshall is still developing a style that, while perhaps less personal (or at least less obviously idiosyncratic) than either of theirs, promises a greater range and flexibility. In their efforts to retain painting’s grasp on historical subjects, Golub and Colescott sometimes seem like isolated figures—younger artists have been engaging history less convincingly in painting than in other media—but Marshall’s painterly chops, conceptual wiles, and compositional assurance suggest a countertradition in the making.

Marshall’s latest paintings are part of a series (of which some works were included in the exhibition “About Place: Recent Art of the Americas” at the Art Institute of Chicago last spring) whose starting point is the irony—if irony it is—that low-income housing projects often have the word “gardens” in their names: Altgeld Gardens, Rockwell Gardens, and Wentworth Gardens in Chicago, and Nickerson Gardens in Los Angeles being the nominal subjects of the four large paintings here. Marshall is after more than the simple disparity between the promise implied in the projects’ names, or the uplifting slogans (“better homes better gardens,” “more of everything”) inscribed on the ribbons that snake their way through some of the paintings, and the rough reality. Instead, like Spike Lee with the incongruously manicured Brooklyn streets in films like Do the Right Thing, 1989, he takes on the pastoral mode for all it’s worth. The people in these paintings—children in Watts 1963, 1995, teenage sweethearts in Better Homes Gardens, 1994, the mature man, prone but rising up on two arms like a Classical river god, of Untitled (Altgeld Gardens), 1995—are not, in their hieratic stylization, their beauty, and for that matter their blackness (which is closer to the jet of blackface minstrelsy than to the range of browns a naturalistic rendition would call for) figures of realism but archetypes. But, as with Lee, none of this is in the service of any ersatz reconciliation; rather, it encourages us to suspend reflexive judgments long enough to see the complexities that have been set in motion. Even defeated aspirations remain real; false hopes and illusions become humanly comprehensible.

These emotional and political ambiguities are reflected above all in the spatial complexities of Marshall’s collagelike juxtapositions and layerings of deep space, the distinct shallow spaces of particular bodies and objects, and surfaces emblazoned with patterns, emblems, musical notation, and inscriptions, all held firmly, thanks to the artist’s seemingly unerring sense of placement, within a surprisingly “Modernist” tautness that banishes all thought of eclecticism for its own sake.

Barry Schwabsky