For artist Kerry James Marshall, black is more than a colour. In his work, especially his paintings, black is an idea inspired by the virtual absence of black people from the history of western art. You could call it a political black but it’s usually way too layered for such a single, reductive reading.
Even if you say that you don’t like political art, Marshall’s work is so technically accomplished that you can’t help but like what he’s created. Marshall’s work is both conceptually layered and visually rewarding.
A great example of that is Invisible Man, one of the works in a solo show of Marshall’s paintings, drawings and sculpture at the Rennie Museum.
The painting shares the same title with the novel by Ralph Ellison published in 1952 about an unnamed narrator aware of his social invisibility as an African-American.
In Marshall’s painting, the unnamed figure is depicted as black on a black background. Seen from the front, the figure blends into its surrounding. Only from the side, with the light raking across the surface, can you barely see his body. He’s also censored with two black rectangles over his genitals and the top of his head, both of which effectively deny and draw attention to his sexuality and intelligence.
What stands out, however, are the whites of his eyes and his smile. The white teeth in two rows make his smile looks skeletal, perhaps slightly mocking. As I looked at his smile and his near invisibility I couldn’t help but think that maybe the expression was one of surprise at being found in an art gallery — a historical place of exclusion for black men like him.
The shape of the smile comes from a 1961 horror film called Mr. Sardonicus that Marshall (who loves the genre) said taught him the meaning of irony. In the film, the lead character’s face is locked in a permanent, horrific grin after he opens his dead father’s coffin to get a winning lottery ticket.
In an interview in front of the painting, Marshall talked about Invisible Man as one example of his black on black paintings.
“The idea of that sardonic, devilish grin, stuck with me,” Marshall said.
He said he was interested in making black chromatically complex. Even though the black of the background looks black, it is, he explained, a very dark, dark green.
“That was part of the reason for the paintings in the first place: to break the notion that blackness was a reductive condition, that it couldn’t be more complex, and that you couldn’t make a painting with just black.”
It’s displayed at the Rennie Museum in its own little exhibition alcove. Instead of being surrounded by walls painted in traditional art gallery white, they’re a dark grey chosen by Marshall. The subdued lighting brings out the painting’s subtleties.
“Depending on how the picture is lit or where you’re standing, you can alternatively see and not see the figure,” he said.
“It would emerge and become submerged in the ground. A kind of simultaneity — presence and absence, visibility and invisibility. It’s about seeing and not seeing. That’s something everybody can get into. It’s not an issue peculiar to black people.”
Invisible Man is one of 33 works by Marshall in the exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works at the Rennie. The works span 32 years of Marshall’s career and several were recently in a major Marshall retrospective that toured three museums the U.S. including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
One of the paintings in that touring retrospective was Past Times. It made headlines on its own recently when it was sold at Sotheby’s auction in New York for $21.1 million — four times the previous high for a Marshall painting.
The sale was noteworthy for several reasons including the fact that it was the most ever paid for the work of a living African-American artist. It was later revealed that the painting was bought by Sean Combs, a.k.a. Puff Daddy, the Grammy Award-wining music producer and rapper.
The New York Times described Past Times as a “monumental painting by Kerry James Marshall with a narrative centered on black experiences.”
At the Rennie, Marshall said in an interview that most people have missed the significance of Combs buying his painting in the auction.
Historically, Marshall pointed out that black people have not competed well in capital markets. Black bodies have been used to make profits for other people, he said, but rarely for themselves.
“The import of (the purchase), I think, is missed on a lot of people,” he said.
“I don’t know if a lot of people recognize what that really represents: this is probably the first instance in the history of the art world where a black person competed in a capital competition and won.”
He later went on to say that his job was to “make better pictures than the picture I made last time — not to make more expensive pictures than I made the last time.”
The Kerry James Marshall exhibition is open to the public at the Rennie Museum from Saturday, June 6 to Saturday, Nov. 3. The works, drawn entirely from the Rennie Collection, represent the largest private collection of works by Marshall. Bob Rennie is the founder of the Rennie Museum.
There is no admission to see an exhibition at the Rennie, located in the Wing Sang Building at 51 East Pender. But you have to book a tour online at the available times on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday. A tour is about 50 minutes long.
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