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March 16, 2004

Kerry James Marshall on the Move

Art Papers has an inexplicably glowing review of Kerry James Marshall's traveling solo exhibition by Matthew Biro gracing their March/April cover. This is of course not particularly surprising considering the stunning ability of contemporary theory-cum-criticism to conjure accomplishment out of thin air on the back of a handful of critical truisms: say something snappy, or twist our language into some perverse stepchild of logic, and it's as good as true. Such is the way of artspeak when released from the objective constraints of observation and the material object (but I digress).

Previous to the MCA exhibition, I was familiar only with Marshall's richly developed and densely figured (not to mention gorgeous) Souvenir paintings. This style is ably represented here by Memento I, a triumph of his trademark tapestry kitsch which stands out as the highlight of the show. Much as I love those works, I found (as I've hinted at before) the exhibition in question to be diffuse, dull and ultimately disappointing. The show's title, One True Thing, Meditations on Black Aesthetics, gives a good sense of its ostensible scope and conceptual ambitions. Branching into more explicitly conceptual terrain, Marshall presents us with something purported to be a broad and variegated assortment of differing takes on "Black Aesthetics." It is no doubt an adventurous exploration in diversity of form and expression by an established talent, but the exhibition amounts to little more than a weak hodge-podge. Joseph Tabet at panel-house compares the result to that of a juried graduate exhibition with "a little of everything." "I found myself standing in the middle of the museum wondering, 'What in hell is he doing?'" Rather than a sophisticated survey of or deep meditation on black aesthetics in a post-identity context, we find a curatorial muddle of sub-par art—an aping of shop-worn conceptualist prototypes at worst, underdeveloped conceptual-aesthetic gestures at best.

In his praise of Marshall's show, however, Biro appeals to the conceit of 'disturbing art' to find the hidden success: "This new, much more conceptual art is disturbing. Often strikingly ugly, literal or abject, it contrasts starkly with the beautiful, figurative canvases that we expect from Marshall... Still, if Marshall's new multimedia art disturbs us, it does so partly by raising provocative questions and issues." No. This work "disturbs" not because it is so effectively daring, but because it is, on the whole, so very abject, rote and empty. The only work (beyond a handful of better paintings) that really hit me as genuinely and startlingly provocative was Heirlooms/Accessories, a large digital triptych that juxtaposes in a very straightforward manner a historical photo of a Southern lynching with gold jewelry, using the jewelry as a framing device to highlight the reactions of three white women in the mob. Biro is right in calling the piece "uncanny"; it focuses clearly and directly on its powerful subject-matter while somehow transcending it in its affectivity. It provokes, however, only insofar as it escapes the otherwise abundant tendency in this exhibit towards a literal and heavy-handed conceptualism.

In his video projections, Marshall cribs the process-conceptualism of the contemporary court style of our standard video installation repertoire: park a camcorder and let it roll. The affectless "eye" and casual, determining "process" of the artist-as-operator allow a presumptive conceptual purity to prevail over anything that might resemble thought, meaning or aesthesis. In this brand of conceptualism, sensitive aesthetic development beyond the immediate needs of an over-determined conceptual framework is not only unnecessary, but is in fact ideologically suspect. Thus, in Marshall's case, we're left with pieces that are unable to achieve the density, sophistication and significant efficacy that mark his earlier paintings.

In lieu of actual conceptual depth then, Biro partakes of an egregious but all too common critical approach that allows us to declare—on the strength of arch formal metaphors—that an artist has achieved something they clearly have not. The welded frames of Sixteen Bar Blues, he says, "shift the spectator's orientation constantly—they face not only forward, but also up, down, right and left." In concert with the legitimately interesting content of the piece, Biro sees in this underdeveloped formal gesture a juxtaposition of "ideas of translation and cultural hybridity with formal explorations of changes in perspective and permutations of similar elements", casually (if implicitly) conflating different meanings of 'perspective' and reimagining framing strategy as social statement. Somewhat similarly, The Art of Hanging Pictures presents photographs of various sizes in standard abject-contemporary mode. "Hung at various heights and angles... This work's jumbled, unconventional display emphasizes the dislocating and increasingly fragmentary character of certain forms of black experience." In both cases a basic formal strategy is drawn into a conceptual metaphor, mistaken for phenomenal response and purported to represent a specific social experience. (Likewise: I recall catching a bit of an interview with Marshall on Artbeat Chicago, but had to flip the channel when he told Fawn Ring that the music staves represented in 7 am Sunday Morning allow the viewer to experience the rhythm or feel of music, or something to that effect.)

We're in the realm of literalism here, where forms relate to their apparent subjects only in a most mundane and unconvincingly prosaic manner. This is the abandonment of the very strength and potentiality of conceptualism, which at its best bears forth the images of thought and the thoughts in the image—figuration, both material and conceptual. Perhaps we are witnessing the ravages of semiotics (at least in its current, debased state which casts off any thoughts of the figurative for a 'science' of bare signification); maybe we've lost our sensitivity to the significance of form (as opposed to the significance of Biro's semantic excess). At any rate, only the blind would find such sophistry convincing. But of course we shouldn't let the work itself get in the way of Marshall's apparently brilliant conceptual accomplishment.

Of Marshall's Color Blind Test Biro writes, "these psychedelic and conceptually-rich paintings... These ironic yet slickly seductive works represent word and image in a state of flux or transformation." The diptych from this series portrays a pair of Black Power figures on variations on Marcus Garvey's Universal African Flag, while the triptych contrasts the words, "Fubu," "Foucault," and "Muthafukka" across its three panels. The works bear only passing (indexical?) resemblance to the dot patterns of the Ishihara color blindness test. Catch the tediously literal metaphor? Poorly executed aesthetically speaking, not "slick" or "seductive" in the least, and with none of the perceptual agitation characteristic of the Ishihara tests themselves, these paintings are no more than literal and over-determined transcriptions of a thin and gimmicky idea, with little conceptual resonance and only token appeal to the senses.

Finally I have to cast a bit of doubt on Biro's closing thought, that "Marshall's exhibition will be debated and responded to for some time to come." Though I'm admittedly removed from the context in which he discussed the exhibition (that is, in relation to the Studio Museum in Harlem's 2001 Freestyle exhibition on "post-black" aesthetics), I can't imagine it having much purchase beyond the narrow considerations of Marshall's own career and artistic development. And while certainly the exhibit serves as a valuable map to the expanding horizons of his work and interest, capturing the explorations and development of a working artist mid-stream (one would hope), it is also fraught with aesthetic growing pains (though this is an odd and perhaps presumptuous thing for me to say of someone decades my senior). His works in this new idiom have not yet reached a level of sophistication and accomplishment akin to that of even his own established oeuvre, let alone anything of truly paradigmatic import. Put simply: if this were to prove a top talked-about-show of even 2004/2005, I'd find myself more than a little surprised.

"Kerry James Marshall on the Move"
Posted by Dan at 12:48 AM


Referenced in this post:

Art Papers: Representing Blackness—Matthew Biro
Art in America: Freestyling—Sarah Valdez
Artnet: 7 am Sunday Morning
Artnet: Color Blind Test
Artnet: Souvenir
Color Vision Deficiency Test (Flash)
Iconoduel: Strange Days at the MCA
MCA: One True Thing, Meditations on Black Aesthetics
PBS: Kerry James Marshall
Panel-House: Afterthoughts: Kerry James Marshall @ The MCA
WTTW: Artbeat Chicago