"When I made The Lost Boys, I really felt I had done everything that I wanted to do in a painting - the scale and everything. It had the complexity, control, a mastery of surface in paint. It was denser and more complex than anything I had done to date" (Kerry James Marshall in conversation with Arthur Jafa, June-July 1999, quoted in E. Sinaiko, Kerry James Marshall, New York, 2000, p. 66).
The rich iconography of The Lost Boys seemingly offers a range of colorful, almost idyllic, images of childhood abundance. The toy racing car, soccer balls and the white picket fences project an image of plenty in suburban America. Yet, scratch the surface and darker issues begin to emerge. Painted in 1993, the painting was Marshall's direct response to the arrest and incarceration of his youngest brother who was sent to prison for seven years. Upon closer consideration, the painting begins to reveals its true message; the child looks uncomfortably big for the child's toy car that he's driving, whilst the other adolescent is carrying a toy pistol - as Marshall describes them, "Two kids playing with grown up toys, grown up toys that in a lot of cases end up being the death of a lot of black kids" (K. J. Marshall in an interview with C. Rowell, Callaloo, vol. 21 No. 1, pp. 263-272). The cumulative effect of these images now gives an overwhelming sense of loss; loss that is compounded by the funereal bunch of Calla lilies lying at the foot of the canvas and the yellow police tape that is wrapped, serpent like, around the 'tree of life'. Suddenly, the white picket fences become more akin to the 'Pearly Gates.'
The 'lost boys' eluded to in the title also recalls the 'lost boys' in J.M Barrie's Peter Pan. Marshall has acknowledged a deep interest in children's literature and the parallels between the lost boys of Barrie's novel, who never really grew up, was a powerful idea for Marshall, as he noted "If I apply that concept of being lost in a Never Never Land to a lot of young black men, where in some cases it wasn't that they had a willful desire never to grow up, as much as they never had an opportunity to grow up because there were far too many young black men cut down very early in their lives" (Ibid.)
Born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, Marshall spent his formative years in South Central Los Angeles, which at that time was embroiled in the often-violent struggle of the Civil Rights Movement. It is against this backdrop that he began to shape his worldview, which naturally leads him to produce work that reflects the social and political reality of black Americans. "You can't be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and not feel like you've got some kind of social responsibility" Marshall has explained, "You can't move to Watts [in Los Angeles] in 1963 and grow up in South Central near the Black Panthers' headquarters and see the kinds of things I saw in my developmental years and not speak about it" (K. J. Marshall and D. Smith in Conversation, quoted in Along The Way, Kerry James Marshall, exh. cat., London, 2005, p. 17).
The Lost Boys has become one of Kerry James Marshall's most important works. Part of his response to his upbringing and the effect that this had on his life, it has become an iconic piece that reflects the experience of a generation and creates a bittersweet and complex vision of the modern African-American experience. He uses the somber and humorous childhood visions for profoundly critical ends. The surreal, abstract passages of overlaid paint and collage and the sullen, appraising glances of the children also work to subtly undermine this otherwise pristine celebration of suburbia, creating a complex and compelling image that is steeped in a sense of lost innocence.