National Gallery Exhibition Marks Artist Kerry James Marshall's First D.C. Solo Show

Eve M. Ferguson | 8/28/2013, 3 p.m.
Artist Kerry James Marshall transformed his obsession with the Middle Passage into a body of artwork.
Plunge, 1992. Gerri and Mason Haupt.

In the gallery’s acquisition, Great America (1994), the cross appears again in a seemingly innocent scenario where black figures are entering a tunnel on an amusement park boat ride. The theme park carries the same name as one that Marshall used to visit as a child growing up in Los Angeles. A deeper look into the painting raises the question as to whether the occupants of the boat are just riders, or represent slaves packed into a tiny slave ship. At the entrance to the tunnel, sinister-looking fun house ghosts emerge.

Marshall’s imagery carries the viewer through the timeline of African Americans’ presence in the New World, from slavery to suburbia. But, as Marshall reiterates, “It is not meant to be chronological, but to establish a coherent and logical way to reach out to people.”

In other works, such as Bang (1994) and Our Town (1996) innocuous suburban scenes take gravity when one examines the fine details. In the former, three black children celebrate Independence Day – the girl holds the American flag, while two boys say the Pledge of Allegiance. But the smoke rising from the Weber grill is dark and sooty, while a garden hose coils around the girl like a snake, evoking memories of the fire hoses used on children in Birmingham in 1963. The houses positioned behind white picket fences emerge as gleaming white clapboard shacks without windows.

The exhibition is rounded out by a number of studies on paper. These studies are the individual elements which ultimately find their place in the larger works. Housed in the outer gallery, another painting, Nat Turner with the Head of His Master (2011), one of Marshall’s later works, represents yet another of his obsessions, this time with rebel slave Nat Turner. Turner led an unsuccessful revolt in Southampton, Va., that yielded the highest number of casualties among whites of any slave uprising. Turner was eventually hanged to death.

Admittedly, Marshall has painted this scene numerous times. The work on view is executed in the style of Old Masters, who traditionally represented freedom fighters in a classic stance, such as Andrea del Castagno’s David with the Head of Goliath (1450/1455), also owned by the National Gallery of Art.

“I use a collage sensibility gleaned from art history, with modernist and abstract gestures as part of my lexicon,” Marshall said. “Throughout art school, they were a vocabulary that you could employ.”

Acknowledging influences as diverse as Charles White and Goya, Kerry James Marshall’s work is complex, compelling and a pictorial confirmation of the struggles still encountered by African Americans in this nation. The multiple layers of meaningful and informed imagery reflect a knowledge and mastery of time-honored artistic techniques, imbedded with a message, and a reminder, that we have not yet achieved the freedoms promised.

“In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall,” continues at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building through December 7th, 2013. The exhibit is intended to coincide with the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Visit www.nga.gov for more information and complementary museum programs.