From slavery to social housing, Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works tracks African-American history in vivid and often troubling detail

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      Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works
      At the Rennie Museum until November 3

      During a recent media tour of Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works, the acclaimed American artist spoke about the idea of “embodiment” and how it is essential to his creative process. “If you make a thing,” he said, “it looks like what it claims to be about.” Every aspect of an individual work of art, whether formal or material, must reiterate or “embody” the idea behind it. Marshall paused in front of his 2002 photo triptych Heirlooms and Accessories, whose white frames he made himself and inlaid with rhinestones. “Even if you don’t know what it is,” he said, “encoded in the structure of the thing are enough elements to give you a road map to start to figure out what’s going on.”

      One of an impressive range of works on view at the Rennie Museum, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, and mixed-media installations, Heirlooms and Accessories is both deeply reasoned and deeply troubling. It is constructed around an infamous and widely circulated photograph of the lynching of two black men in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. The focus here, however, is intentionally shifted away from the brutalized black bodies (the photo reproduced in each panel of the triptych has been “ghosted” so that it serves as a faint backdrop) to three white women, of different generations, who are part of the mob at the crime scene. Not that they exhibit any fear of being identified as accessories. The face of each woman, gazing with appalling indifference at the camera, has been isolated and foregrounded within the framing image of a locket. And each locket is attached to a chain that echoes the ropes around the necks of the two hanged men.

      Kerry James Marshall's troubling Heirlooms & Accessories.

      The dominant metaphor here is that the violent crimes and physical traumas committed against African-Americans, starting with slavery and still manifest today, are “structurally embedded” in American society. They’re a legacy handed down through generations of American whites, just as family heirlooms might be handed down. This analogy is made all the more unsettling by the suggestion of a jewellery box conveyed by the rhinestone-inlaid frames.

      Born in Birmingham, Alabama, raised in South Central Los Angeles, and based for many years in Chicago, Marshall has witnessed more than his share of protest, violence, and destruction. He is not interested, however, in registering his own experience of contemporary incidents or occurrences. “I don’t buy this internal drive to make work that comes from a personal place,” he said, “because that kind of work is only relevant to the person who makes it.” Instead, he wants to participate in “the long historical conversation”. He does this by re-examining African-American stories from a measured distance, framing them within deconstructed elements of the western art-historical canon and, at the same time, marrying them to aspects of African-American visual and literary culture. His 1986 painting Invisible Man, for instance, poses questions about presence, absence, and the challenges of painting blackness within the context of Ralph Ellison’s eponymous 1952 novel. Untitled (La Venus Negra), a painting with collage elements, employs voodoo veves or symbols while examining ideas of African-American beauty.

      Marshall’s mixed-media installation Untitled (Black Power Stamps) is from an exhibition he created in the late 1990s, speaking to the culture and politics of the 1960s, particularly the American civil rights and black liberation movements. Five block-printed text works on paper read “Black Is Beautiful”, “Black Power”, “We Shall Overcome”, “By Any Means Necessary”, and “Burn Baby Burn”. Read sequentially, these slogans suggest that, in the arena of racial politics, unrealized aspiration inevitably leads to violent revolution. Complementing the prints are an enormous “ink pad” and five greatly oversized “stamps”, sculptures that bear the same words and attach an oddly bureaucratic element of authority to them.

      Other works in the exhibition, which spans some three decades of Marshall’s career, address the failure of social housing projects in Los Angeles and Chicago, the commercializing of tragic events in African-American history, the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, Afrofuturism, and the co-opting of African tribal sculpture in the quest for an authentic African-American art form. Both individually and collectively, they create an experience for the viewer that is rich, deep, and thought-provoking.