By Sharon Mizota
A large wall text in the middle of Kerry James Marshall's exhibition at Koplin Del Rio declares the Chicago painter's intention to address the absence of black people as romantic subjects in art history. To this end, three paintings (and their corresponding studies) insert African American figures -- in Afros and contemporary dress -- into idyllic country settings reminiscent of 18th century Rococo. But the show goes beyond this simple substitution to explore images of black men and women that are typically overburdened by stereotypes.
For one thing, the paintings' nostalgia is double: both a longing for a romance denied and an evocation of the idealism of the civil rights and black power era. The scenarios are sweet -- couples playing hide-and-seek, holding hands or lying among daisies -- but Marshall prevents us from being totally immersed in the fantasy by blotting out large sections of each image with broad swaths of cotton-candy pink. These suggest a sentimental halo around the couples, but they also threaten erasure.
Other works include masterful portraits -- two of men, two of women -- and selections from an ongoing series of comic-strip-style inkjet prints. In sharp contrast to the idylls at the center of the show, both traffic in hackneyed portrayals of "angry black men" and sassy, oversexed "hos." Yet through clever juxtapositions and sensitive brushwork, Marshall manages to bring forth a humor and a humanity that transcend those limited roles, pointing to a way of relating somewhere in between the stereotypical and the ideal.