Kerry James Marshall

Prompted by a souvenir—a fringed, black-felt banner with portraits of Martin Luther King and John and Robert Kennedy reproduced here in a small painting—Kerry James Marshall examined the commemoration of ’60s activism in “Mementos,” a complex installation of paintings, sculptures, video, photographs, and prints. Three works actually bear the title Souvenir: nine-by-thirteen-foot unstretched canvases depicting middle-class living rooms with a kind of charged stillness. Each is watched over by a solitary African-American woman, modeled on a friend or family member of the artist, with glittering wings. The details of their homes have been recorded—vases, objets d’art, furniture, drapery, carpets—as if minute observation could render the process of their, and Marshall’s, recollection visible. What these guardian angels protect appears at the top of each painting, a frieze of gauzy clouds from which heads and identifying tags of black leaders (Fred Hampton, Medger Evers, Malcolm X) and cultural heroes (W.E.B. DuBois, Lorraine Hansberry, Elmore James, Billie Holiday, Jesse Belvin) descend. Departing from the color and gestural qualities of the much-heralded “Garden” series, two of the new paintings are grisaille, ornamented only by decorative flourishes and sparkling glitter, yet the palette is as richly suggestive as an old movie.

Much has been made of Marshall’s biography, his youth in Birmingham, Alabama, and Los Angeles’ Watts; like many of his audience, his memories are built on the ruins of the previous generation’s activism. Marshall describes himself as a prisoner of context, and he literally spells out his productive dilemma in double inscriptions on each of the Souvenir paintings: “In memory of” and “We mourn our loss.” The former captures the funereal atmosphere of these rooms frozen in the past, while the latter is performative, enlisting us as participants in an ongoing eulogy that is direct and engaging rather than accusatory; Marshall’s practice is lodged between the two texts. He represents these nostalgia-filled homes as shrines, then disarms us with an aesthetic ambition and political consciousness that challenge the snare of merely celebrating cultural identity. Like Gerhard Richter, Marshall uses sophisticated distancing devices to represent that elusive moment between the individually remembered and the collectively learned.

Marshall alludes more directly to historical conflict in other works. Laid to Rest, 1998, a video installation presented in a freestanding mausoleum-like structure, draws his viewers into the construction of the stereotypes Marshall animates. Through peepholes, we observe a bier of artificial flowers for a black rag doll arranged before a screen displaying a narrative with a syncopated rhythm in which Romare Bearden–style figures enact a violent tale of what happens when a black male looks at a white woman. Five Oldenburg-size rubber-stamps on the floor and the corresponding prints on the wall proclaim “Black Power,” “Burn Baby Burn,” “By Any Means Necessary,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “Black is Beautiful”—almost clichéd slogans of a long-gone era that also suggest the generative immediacy (the viewer, it’s implied, could keep stamping) nudging the retrospective tone of the show.

Despite its heroic scale, Marshall’s work runs the obvious risk of falling into the category of souvenirs from which he draws his inspiration: his images can also serve to replace our active remembrance. In one photograph he examines his own role in the complex politics of memory he eloquently compresses in the show. It shows an illuminated mirror with pictures of King, the Kennedys, and other heroes inserted along the edge of the mirror’s metal frame. In the lower left we can see a bit of reflection of the artist in another mirror, locating himself close to, yet somehow apart from, the pantheon (and what they stand for). Marshall’s ambition to bring the figurative tradition and the rhetoric of history painting to bear on events of our time dares us to revisit the heartbreak that has become our national heritage.

Kerry James Marshall