Kerry James Marshall explains how he explores perfect blackness through painting

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.

FG: Your approach to the physical body, in particular the nudes, can be weirdly confrontational in a wonderful way. Was that part of your intention?
KJM: Yes. Painting the figures as I do, black with a black colour is a part of that. It is unavoidable. They’re not brown skinned in all those different shades; they are none of those things. They are black. That in itself is confrontational you can argue—it demands to be identified as what it is.

FG: Some of your pieces bring to mind Renaissance portraiture—the depiction of figures against these flat background colours, in a kind of non-space. Was that a reference you were striving for?
KJM: I’m nothing if I’m not a child of art history—really, in the end that’s all I have to go on. My idea of art was formed around Italian Renaissance and Flemish paintings. That’s the stuff that I, in some ways, wanted to match in terms of the authority of those pictures. That no-space, that no-place is really important because that may be one of the things that allow the figures to exist out of time. Then the images are more of a phenomenal representation.

FG: You have a collection of images of how black people were represented throughout popular culture? How does that collection of imagery play into your forms of representation?
KJM: A show of mine in Antwerp was kind of organised around this idea of a counter archive. It’s amassing images of black people in every kind of way that you can find. On the one hand there is one way in which black people can be represented that I find too problematic to exist - structured around ideas of positive representations of black people. If you operate on a philosophy that says that the only worthwhile representation of black people are positive representations, then that means it cuts off whole layers of complexity that need to be represented to demonstrate just how fully complex black people actually are.

Part of that thing of collecting all those images is to collect everything. If all your trying to do is find positive images then you end up allowing for the stereotypes, the negative stereotypes of what black people are, as some sort of rule. You’re constantly trapped in this cycle of criticising other people for the way they represent black people. Which means if you’re running around trying to police people - and it probably means that you’re not engaged in the image production that you need to in order to offset it. That’s one of the reasons I collected images the way that I did.

I am always trying to make a perfect picture — a perfect manifestation of blackness

The other thing is collecting all those images you start to get a sense for the kinds of images you see the least and that sort of tells you in some ways what kind of images you might want to fill in some of the gaps. You don’t see a lot of pastoral representations of black people. You just don’t see a lot of rural representations of black people. There is a certain type of black body that occupies the space. It’s either an anthropological body or it’s a sociological body — so it’s black people engaged in the struggle for liberation/freedom, or black people admired in some kind of pre-modern state.

FG: You have been making work for decades, but it feels like you’re coming into your own now. How do you about the concept of aging and growing as an artist?
KJM: One should always believe they can get better, do better work next time. Otherwise, what would be the reason to continue? I am always trying to make a perfect picture. A prefect manifestation of blackness.

FG: That is an interesting thing to be striving for as a concept—the perfect blackness.
KJM: Especially at a time when people are retreating from various identity formations and notions of what people will call essentialist representations and identities. This is not a moment in which looking for absolutes seems to be particularly celebrated. I don’t have a problem with the pursuit.

This piece was originally featured in Legacy. You can purchase a copy here.

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