London – How do you make art that speaks to people beyond the rigid walls of the art world? Kerry James Marshall has an exceptionally unique visual language and approach to making ‘stuff’ that juggles a deep understanding of the history of art with a pop accessibility that can be read by anyone. At the crux of his work is a redefinition and exploration of the concept of blackness. The results are fascinating, confrontational and say something about contemporary society in its entirety.
His personal path has echoed the African American experience. It is now that Marshall has harnessed the kind of attention that is getting him magazine covers and serious establishment presence. It isn’t over the top to describe him as one of the most technically skilled and politically articulate artists alive today. James Marshall talked to me about coming in to your own and how he approaches the body, magic and the perfect blackness.
FRANCESCA GAVIN: Throughout your work you have referenced the history of art, but I find it particularly fascinating to be reworking, rethinking, addressing those big American white abstract painters.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: The challenge for black artists in general is trying to find a place for themselves in an aesthetic regime or aesthetic system, and a history that did not include them as participants in the formulation of its authorizing idea. Here we are operating within a class structure that large number of black artists don’t come from. The challenge has been trying to figure out a way to get inside, but to come in with imagery that has black subject matter or black subjects by a person who is black. People felt like that particular specificity set limitations on how people were able to perceive the work because there is the notion that the black body can never really be a universal body. If you come with the black body in a picture, then people automatically tend to limit their perception of it, believing it is only relevant to black people. A remedy to that marginalization for African American artists who wanted to be seen as just artists and not ‘black artists’ was to do abstract work.
FG: Would you say that abstraction allowed freedom?
KJM: This was the belief. The problem with doing abstract work is this notion of belatedness. When you come late, and you are outside the specific discourse that articulates the parameters of a genre, even of abstraction, then the work is always seen as derivative. Black people who did abstract work weren’t any more likely to break into the mainstream as people who did figurative work. My thing is that, well, it’s difficult for any artist to get recognition. You might as well do what you want and address the issues that are important to you; but try and do it in a way that on some level forces the issue, compels attention.