Kerry James Marshall (born October 17, 1955) is an American artist who uses painting, sculptural installations, collage, video, and photography to comment on the history of black identity both in the United States and in Western art. I was recently introduce to his work while doing research for a project. He is well known for paintings that focus on black subjects historically excluded from the artistic canon, and has explored issues of race and history through imagery ranging from abstraction to comics. As he describes, his work is rooted in his life experience: “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it.”
Strongly influenced by his experiences as a young man, he developed a signature style during his early years as an artist that involved the use of extremely dark, essentially black figures. These images represent his perspective of African-Americans with separate and distinct inner and outer appearances. At the same time, they confront racial stereotypes within contemporary American society. This common theme appeared continuously in his large-scale painting throughout the subsequent decades, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.
Some of Marshall’s notable works include the Garden Project, which critiques the glorified names of housing projects that conceal desperate poverty and the Lost Boys series about young men killed or abandoned by various social systems. This collection was semi inspired by an autobiographical situation where Marshall’s youngest brother was incarcerated for seven years. Marshal says it’s about “the concept of being lost: lost in America, lost in the ghetto, lost in public housing, lost in joblessness, and lost in illiteracy. And all of those things sort of changed...all of those things kind of came together with the fact that my own brother now seemed to be one of those lost.
Marshall explored the concept of black beauty in contrast to Western ideals with paintings where a nude female figure, literally blends into her dark surroundings, her sensuous shape barely discernible. Yet once the viewer looks closely, her curvaceous figure evokes a womanly power only enhanced by the deep black of her skin. As Marshall admits, he himself “‘had not considered that a black woman could be considered a goddess of love and beauty,’” but with his painting he proves its possibility. He challenges the classic perception of a goddess as only a Caucasian woman with long flowing hair, speaking again to the issue of African American identity in the Western world.
Marshall studied in Los Angeles with acclaimed social realist painter Charles White and participated in the residency program at the Studio Museum in Harlem. He has received solo exhibitions throughout Europe and North America and his work has been included in prestigious international exhibitions. His paintings are in private collections and foundations as well as major public collections including the MCA’s.
Kerry James Marshall now lives in Chicago, where he previously taught at the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a 1978 graduate of Otis College of Art and Design.