Kerry James Marshall:
“Portraits, Pin-Ups, and Wistful Romantic Idylls”
at Koplin del Rio Gallery
“Portraits, Pin-Ups, and Wistful Romantic Idylls” is an evocative, genteel descriptive, as well as a fair account of the contents of painter Kerry James Marshall’s latest exhibition, his sixth with the gallery.
Though he currently lives and works in Chicago, the artist was raised in LA, in Watts to be precise, and attended Otis College. His work continues to be informed by his experiences in this city as a young black man on both sides of the cultural divide that separates South Central from West Side gallery districts. The idiomatic historical sources for his composite, symbolrich paintings—from 18th century decorative illustration and decoration such as Frick Collectionstyle hand-painted wall paper, to All-American, Mel Ramos style pin-up girls, to history portraits of nobility—
are plundered and mixed with visual cues from the exotic and familiar lexicon of Black America. Powerful results such as Portrait of John Punch (Angry Black Man 1646), (2007), blend pop culture with antebellum memes, so that John Punch, who was sentenced to a life of slavery in a court of law, is shown in a high, stiff collar and bulky, overstuffed garment, with wild dreads like Medusa’s snakes. His wide, generous mouth is stony with anger, while his laser-focused
gaze bespeaks muffled, passionate intensity.
By transposing genres and motifs, Marshall handily makes his points about how much—or little—has changed over the years; but equally compelling is his facility with the multiple stylistic mannerisms he employs. The Idylls, such as Vignette #13, (2008), use a breezy, blocky hand resembling the sketched-out vistas of Edwardian pictorialists. The hills upon which Marshall’s afro-sporting hipsters in casual modern clothes romp are covered in crisp flowers and awash in cotton candy skies that are highly stylized and insistently decorative.
These works in particular benefit from the flat slickness of the PVC panel Marshall paints on instead of more absorptive canvas or wood. All the paintings have a sleek sheen that prevents them from looking physically old even when the artist employs old techniques, a modern sensibility most at home in the affecting Pin-
Ups. The wagging finger and almost equine, onyx-black haunches Untitled (Pin-Up), (2008), the daisy chain of sweat beads across her regal collar bone, the white, hot highlights skittering on the cliffs of her cheekbones and forehead like shooting stars in the night of her face—
makes her look like a cross between Olympia’s maid and Erykah Badu—all ferocity and overwhelming beauty, even when filling out a bra and thong.
—SHANA NYS DAMBROT
www.artltdmag.com Copyright ©2008 Lifescapes Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.