Kerry James Marshall, De Style, 1993, acrylic and collage on canvas, 8' 8“ x 10' 2”.

Kerry James Marshall, De Style, 1993, acrylic and collage on canvas, 8' 8“ x 10' 2”.

Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall, De Style, 1993, acrylic and collage on canvas, 8' 8“ x 10' 2”.

FEW ARTISTS have imagined the present in the manner of art history’s grand styles as successfully as Kerry James Marshall. Although he has made work in many media over the past three decades, he remains best known for large figurative paintings that compellingly interweave explorations of African-American history, the mechanisms of remembrance, and the venerable traditions of old-school European painting. And while the fifty-five-year-old artist has been the subject of important solo museum shows and is a staple of major international exhibitions (including two of the past three Documentas), there have been relatively few opportunities to consider the development of his painted oeuvre on its own.

All the more welcome, then, that the Chicago-based artist’s first one-man exhibition in Canada—organized by Kathleen S. Bartels and artist Jeff Wall, and on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 3—conjoins eight iconic canvases from the 1990s with a complement of recent works (including a series of prints). A studied selection rather than a survey, the three-room show provides a valuable chance to take stock of Marshall’s position vis-à-vis the histories of painting he strategically engages. The picture that emerges from this restrictive focus is of an artist committed to using the formal conventions of European picturemaking in and of themselves and as springboards for contemporary political and cultural commentary.

The considerable literature on Marshall typically frames his practice in terms of identity politics and reads his paintings against the backdrop of the artist’s biography, which coincides with important benchmarks of the civil rights struggle in the United States. It is easy to see why such interpretations prevail, for Marshall has committed himself to an artistic program of visualizing African-American personages and histories and has famously resolved never to include a white figure in his art. (In this vein, his five-venue traveling solo exhibition in 2003–2005 was titled “One True Thing: Meditations on Black Aesthetics.”) To neglect such openly stated polemics would be to misread Marshall’s art, but to foreground them at the expense of an account of his formal investments is to sell him short as a painter. Thus, somewhat against this grain, the medium-specific focus of the current exhibition provides space to consider how the artist’s extended engagement with the canon of European painting elaborates the more overtly political content of his work.

The earliest piece in the show—a large, colorful 1993 canvas titled De Style—inaugurated many of the terms for the artist’s subsequent painting practice and provides a good case study for the lens the exhibition affords. In this oversize, multifigure composition, Marshall plays with two seminal traditions of Dutch painting in equal measure: group portraiture and abstraction. By inscribing the vernacular social space of the African-American barbershop within the form of the seventeenth-century large-scale group portrait, Marshall makes good on his agenda of inserting black figures within frameworks from which they have typically been excluded. But the artist pointedly invites the viewer to appraise the nonrepresentational qualities of the picture as well. From his insistent reiteration of the horizontal and vertical lines that organize the composition and emphasize its flatness to his concerted use of the five “zero degree” colors (the primaries blue, yellow, and red, with black and white), Marshall explicitly recasts the painterly tropes of Piet Mondrian. Lest one miss these cues, the artist homophonically titles his piece in reference to the twentieth-century movement associated with such abstractions: When “De Stijl” becomes De Style, we know we are in the very particular realm of Marshall’s artistic practice. The verbal equivalent of what the artist renders in paint, the title calls out to an important chapter in the medium’s past, impressing on it a vital inflection of present concerns and figures.

Such references abound in Marshall’s paintings, and it’s fun to read many of his formal moves as consciously inhabiting previous artworks. Familiar compositions, figural poses, brushwork, and color palettes from myriad episodes in the medium’s history are everywhere put into play, challenging viewers to seek them out. (I found myself wondering: Is that mirror a quotation of Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère? That figure lifted from Courbet’s Stonebreakers? Isn’t that facture explicitly Gustonesque?) However, the ultimate strength of Marshall’s citational strategy transcends the art-historical parlor game it elicits, evincing something more concerted than typical painterly appropriations. Indeed, Marshall’s borrowing is fundamentally different from the way Titian might cop a figure group from Giorgione, for example. Marshall is undoubtedly looking for tricks of the trade and guideposts for how to put pictures together, but he is simultaneously aligning himself both within and against a specific history of painting. It is a complex program of reference and amendment, which serves not only to position Marshall within an august lineage but also to read the history of art in light of its blind spots. That is, as much as Marshall conjures painting’s history and desires to converse with it, he offers critiques and correctives—unraveling the “naturalized” fictions the medium has often serviced. This is most overt when Marshall addresses the ideologies of narrative painting, laden as it is with religious and political histories of power and social control. But Marshall does not stop there. As Wall argues in his smart, compact catalogue essay, the artist enlists “every part” of the art-historical canon in order to populate these various genres with black subjects and his own aesthetics—rewriting them, marking them with difference.

Kerry James Marshall, Souvenir I, 1997, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 9' x 13' 1".

Through this interpretative frame, the exhibition can be read as a catalogue of Marshall’s tour through art history: The 1995 “Garden Project” paintings can be seen as a hybrid of history painting and the pastoral form; Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, both 2009, become Baroque full-length nudes; the three “Vignette” paintings of 2005 read as meditations on sentimental, Rococo fantasy; the Black Painting, 2003–2006, is a recast domestic genre scene, and so on. By bopping among forms, Marshall underscores the radical contingency of each and unravels its claim to a totalizing worldview. Thus the forms and content of Marshall’s paintings play off one another, taking his project far beyond a literal excursus on issue-based politics and raising more structural questions about representation and visibility generally.

As interesting as this strategy is between works, it is arguably even more compelling when it happens within individual paintings. Among the works on view here, this “meta” style is most dynamic in the canvases from the mid- to late 1990s. Each of these paintings—drawn from his “Garden Project” and the 1997–98 “Souvenir” series—features an image characterized by several registers of representation overlaid into one pictorial space; together they constitute the heart of the show. In Watts 1963, 1995, for example, a loosely naturalistic depiction of three children on a lawn is disrupted by all sorts of diverse pictorial incidents: the text running throughout the image; the pink stenciled forms, cartoonish flowers, stylized bluebirds, and diagrammatic sun; and, perhaps most emphatically, the areas of gestural abstract brushwork. As much as all of Marshall’s outward-glancing figures address and implicate the viewer, these shifting modes of representation also serve to, in the artist’s own words, “intrude,” “disrupt,” and “disturb” the fictional transparency of the image. That is to say, while ironically re-presenting urban public-housing projects that have “garden” in their title in a kind of contemporary history painting, Marshall here also underscores the contingency, and subjectivity, of pictorial representation itself. Watts 1963 and the other paintings of this type are made of distinct component modes, each of which individually proves incapable of relaying the whole story Marshall wants to tell. Working in concert, however, these individual manners add up to a complete image, in which difference, instability, and pictorial interdependence remain at the fore.

Nowhere is this manner of self-reflexive play more apparent than in Marshall’s “Souvenir” pictures, each of which contains a stenciled glitter frame within the image that duplicates the rectilinear format of the canvas. These frames not only reinforce the flatness of the paintings, but also echo the memorial banners depicted within many of the images (featuring, for instance, portraits of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King above the phrase WE MOURN OUR LOSS). The charge of this rearticulated framing is most pronounced here in Souvenir I, 1997, in which the golden glitter fringe of the felt banner rendered in perspective within the image re-appears around the painting itself—as if stretched and flattened out to coincide with the plane of the surface before which we stand. This device functions to collapse the different spaces of representation and to implicate us in our own looking, revealing Marshall’s standing interest in shuttling his viewer’s attention between the depicted space and the physical reality of the canvas. It also, interestingly, proposes that the painting might somehow fulfill the same memorializing task as the banner, thus picturing its own use. The very physical stuff of these paintings buttresses this sense of functionality as well, for their supports—swaths of canvas attached directly to the wall with screws, rather than stretched over a wooden frame—bespeak easy portability. More than conventional canvases, which rhetorically project solidity and permanence, these paintings look like they could be quickly taken off the wall, rolled up, and shown elsewhere if need be. They have the physical quality of banners—of images intended more for urgent use than for relaxed contemplation. (This is an inquiry Marshall followed to its logical conclusion in other paintings from this time—not included here—which remade banners as paintings.)

In Marshall’s most recent work, his strategies of collapsing the frames of representation appear to have become more synthetic, knit into the narratives of the images themselves rather than revealed in visibly different constituent parts. When it works, this is an amazing tack, and the most gripping image in the exhibition is among his newest: the life-size, half-length portrait Untitled; Painter, 2010. This piece depicts a seated artist in the studio as well as the painted self-portrait on which he appears to still be working. While, of course, any depiction of an image maker provides fertile occasion for a meditation on the mechanisms of making images—that quintessentially modernist preoccupation—Marshall ups the ante here, using the structure of the image itself to poetically explore his central concerns about representation, race, and self. The painted artist, whose face is rendered in Marshall’s signature uninflected black, is shown wearing a shirt with a camouflage-like design—he is depicted as doubly invisible. The image he paints, on the other hand, is cast in a vibrant rainbow of pinks, the kind of colors that until recently were marketed in art-supply stores generically as “flesh tone.” Marshall depicts the painter at the moment after he has put down the pink brush and begun to render his own face, filling in ready-made, paint-by-number compartments with dark blue hues. The image is a powerful metonym for the central concerns of the first thirty years of Marshall’s art, self-reflexively picturing as it does an unfinished moment of self-representation within the hallowed historical genre of portraiture. And as one of the most recent works in the show, it leaves us with Marshall’s contemporary diagnosis, showing that although the painter’s image is coming into focus, the most important parts remain a work in progress.

Jordan Kantor is an artist and an associate professor of painting and humanities at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.