“It’s a challenge to exceed yourself. Every time I do a picture, I’m trying to do a better or more complex picture from my last. I try to push the limits of my abilities,” Kerry James Marshall told Juxtapoz in the Winter 2018 issue. “With retrospectives, you make assessments of what you’ve done over time. You can see it all in front of you. You know more about what you’re trying to get at and how to make it happen.” Now, even another different angle on one of the greatest American painters work; a Collected Works retrospective at the Rennie Museum in Vancouver, BC. Spanning thirty-two years of the artist’s career. Kerry James Marshall: Collected Worksfeatures pieces from the artist’s complex body of work, which interrogates the sparse historical presence of African-Americans through painting, sculpture, drawing and other media. The exhibition opens June 2nd and runs through November 3rd, 2018.
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Kerry has been in the news in the past month, as his stunning work, Past Times, was bought at auction for $21.1m by P Diddy (the highest price ever for a KJM painting). There seems to be even more attention on Marshall’s work than ever before. His Mastry retrospective from a few years back remains perhaps one of the great American painting shows of the 21st Century. Now, Canada, most specifically Vancouver, gets a chance to see a collection of Marshall’s works.
The sculptural installation Untitled (Black Power Stamps) (1998), Marshall’s very first work acquired by Bob Rennie, aptly sets the tone of the exhibition. Five colossal stamps and their corresponding ink pads are dispersed over the floor of the museum’s four-story high gallery space. Inscribed on each stamp, and reiterated on the walls, are phrases of power dating back to the Civil Rights Movement: ‘Black is Beautiful’, ‘Black Power’, ‘We Shall Overcome’, ‘By Any Means Necessary’, and ‘Burn Baby Burn’. The sentiment reverberates through the three 18 feet (5.5 metre) wide paintings installed in the same room, respectively titled Untitled (Red) (2011), Untitled (Black) and Untitled (Green) (2012). Exhibited together for the first time in North America, the imposing paintings with their colours saluting the Pan African flag echo the form of Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III (1967).
Commanding attention in the center of another room is Wake (2003-2005), a sculptural work that focuses on the collective trauma of slavery. Draped atop a blackened model sailboat is a web of medallions featuring portraits of descendants of the approximately twenty African slaves who first landed in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Atop a polished black base evoking the deep seas, the medallions cascade over and behind the mourning vessel in a gilded procession, cast out in the boat’s wake. The work commemorates an entire lineage of people whose lives have been irrevocably affected by the traumatic history of slavery in the United States, while simultaneously celebrating the resilience and vivacity of the culture that flourished from it.
Garden Party (2004-2013) is a long-coveted painting that Marshall re-worked over the course of almost ten years. Created in a style that harkens 19th century impressionist paintings, the work depicts a scene of leisure – an array of multi-ethnic friends and neighbours casually gathered in a backyard of a social housing project. Painted on a flat canvas tarp and hung barely off the floor, the image highlights an often-overlooked perspective of the vibrant everyday life in the projects and invites its viewers to join in the gathering.
In a dimmed room is Invisible Man (1986) – a historic work and one of the first to feature Marshall’s now iconic black on black tonal painting. Referencing Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel of the same title, Marshall’s work literalizes the premise of black invisibility. Only distinguishable by his bright-white eyes and teeth, and the subtle warmth that delineates black body from black background, Marshall’s figure, like Ellison’s protagonist, subverts his own invisibility, using colour as an emblem of power rather than of submission. The work’s presentation at Rennie Museum provides an opportunity for viewers to explore the full mastery with which Kerry James Marshall layers his various shades of black.
Read our interview with Kerry James Marshall here.
Courtesy Rennie Museum
Photographer: Blaine Campbell