Is it possible to reinvent yourself completely? After all, it gets to the point when you just don’t feel like you. Pick a university in some far-off town, move house, dump your partner, move abroad… Some call it running away; some call it finding yourself. ‘Course, ‘you’ are the least of your problems: family, mates, colleagues, even new encounters treat you in a certain way, the structure is somehow already established in the way you act, the way you look, the way you perceive yourself to look…
The male artist Kerry James Marshall applies this dilemma to the ‘African American experience’, in complete awareness, and complete self-awareness, that he’s dealing here with pure fantasy, a bundle of preconceptions, that have congealed as rock hard in our mentalities as a ship’s biscuit.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, Marshall became established in US in the 1980s and was later introduced to Europe with his presence at Documenta X, the 1997 edition of the Kassel-based art fair*. Now he’s in Barcelona with Kerry James Marshall. Painting and other stuff, an exhibition curated by the award-winning Belgium-based curator, Nav Haq, set on two floors of the Fundació Tàpies. And while he is best known as a painter, Marshall here utilises the wider mainstream language of contemporary art: the photograph, sculpture, print, the installation, in an attempt to fill what he calls the ‘vacuum in the image bank’, that is, to slot ‘the black image’ into history.
Physical evidence of this image bank is found downstairs, where piles of photos and postcards depict all the famous bits of art history. There are Botticellis and Berninis, Warhols and Pollocks – but what’s in a name? We may well ask. Is it that they’re all white, as Marshall might suggest? Though they are also all men, all Western, we’re seeing mostly painting and sculpture here – and all have become prominent thanks to a bunch of other people: theorists, art institutions, collectors, bloggers…
In short, Marshall knows – and shows – that this is an impossible task. How do you reinsert a so-called ‘minority’ (the concept is laughable when you think about it) group (that concept too) into a historical structure built of selective criteria, and consolidated by the negation of so many presences? This seems to me to be the thought behind his impersonal, enigmatic portraits, where faces appear impassive and in shadow, dressed in a bright clichéd clothing of the 18th century (Believed to be a Portrait of David Walker (Circa 1830), 2009) playfully posed like 1950s advertisements (Vignette, 2008) or pinned down in the lurid lighting of pulp fiction (Nude (Spotlight), 2009).
More than a piece of social criticism, then, these pieces seek, in their aesthetic appeal and as an exhibition, to dismantle the idea of a homogenous entity and its threatening ‘tribal’ associations – be it the ‘African American’, the ‘woman’, the ‘artist’, or the ‘Westerner’. And what we’re left with is a more affective sense of absence. Where is that individual who rifles through those arty images looking for herself? Who leafs through magazines, and can’t understand the attraction behind those ridiculous photo-shoots within?
Marshall recognises that just as we need some reference, some kind of template, in order to reinvent ourselves as someone, this process of trying to integrate is as imperative to us as it is doomed. It is the desire behind it that interests him. That sense of wanting to get in and wanting to get out, epitomised in his large painting Garden Party, 2003 – where groups, of various skin tones, eye each other down from the house and up from the garden… Is the issue here racial? Or is there a more fundamental question being asked: where’s the party?
The show at the Antoní Tàpies Foundation in Barcelona is on until October 26th. You can see more of the artists’ work in a simultaneous exhibition at Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.
All the images come from Tàpies press pack and are courtesy of the artist. A shorter version of this review can be found in Barcelona Metropolitan magazine.
*The 1997 edition of the Kassel-based air fair, Documenta X, curated by Catherine David, was controversial at the time for the interest it showed in social and political issues. While many were pleased with the presence of African and Asian artists others found it preachy and ‘passé’ – too much politics and too little aesthetics. Its ‘formula’ is pretty mainstream now! Which doesn’t mean it’s less controversial. What do artists know about politics? Are they using social issues to draw attention to themselves? Stuff to consider…