Kerry James Marshall (B. 1955)
Kerry James Marshall (B. 1955)


Kerry James Marshall (B. 1955)
acrylic on fiberglass in artist's wood frame
72 x 107 3/4 in. (182.9 x 273.7 cm.)
Painted in 2003.
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Private collection
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 15 November 2007, lot 454
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
M. Workman, "Marshall Art," New City, Chicago, October 16, 2003 (illustrated).
M. Tapp, "Visible Man," Chicago Magazine, Chicago, October 2003, p. 103 (illustrated).
D. Tranberg, "The Metaphysics of Race: Kerry James Marshall's Meditations," Angle: A Journal of Arts + Culture, Vol. I, January-February 2004, no. 11 (illustrated).
El Turner, "The Big Picture," The Miami Herald Art Review, March 28, 2004 (illustrated).
M. Biro, "Representing Blackness," Art Paper, March-April 2004, p. 38 (illustrated).
M. O'Sullivan, "Mixed Meditations," The Washington Post, Washington D.C., Friday, July 2, 2004, p. WE31.
G. Dixon, "True Thing: Breaking Out of the Frame," The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., July 20, 2004, p. C01 (illustrated).
L. Cumming, "Kerry James Marshall: Along the Way," The Observer, London, London, January, 2006 (illustrated).
E. Williams, "Kerry James Marshall," Art Monthly, No. 293, February, 2006, p. 34.
Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; Miami Art Museum, Baltimore Museum of Art; Studio Museum in Harlem and Birmingham Museum of Art, Kerry James Marshall: One True Thing, Meditations on Black Aesthetics, October 2003-April 2005, xxxi (illustrated).
Miami Art Museum, Figuratively Speaking: Selection from the Permanent Collection, February-October 2005.

Brought to you by

Eliza Netter
Eliza Netter

Lot Essay

Kerry James Marshall has been described as “one of the most innovative and influential American artists of his generation”(J. Neal, “Kerry James Marshall: Along the Way,” Modern Painters, October. 2006, p. 105). In Vignette, he inflects a social realist style with hints of Pop and Surrealist aesthetics to represent his black protagonists. The figures, reminiscent of Grant Wood characters, are both romanticized and slightly flattened. The work suggest ideals of a better future even while it reminds us of stereotypes of black identity and the way the media presents them. The figures are almost reduced to cartoons and the accessibility of the subject matter due to the reduction of the figures is reminiscent of Kara Walker’s silhouettes. Marshall remarked: “I’m using the comic form because it has a certain ephemeral quality… I’ve drawn a comic with a narrative that I want people to read and acknowledge… I’m playing with a series of contradictions and subversive gestures to question where the value in a treasured thing lies. Is it in the privileged or the pedestrian space? And can value be inscribed in such an ephemeral form? In the comic itself are some cultural issues that I want to deal with, too. It confronts an absence in popular comics of black representation.” (K. Marshall, et. al, Frame by Frame, New York, p. 106).
This ambitious large-scale painting addresses the issues of black representation by interweaving narratives of art history, society, culture and politics. Working representationally, Marshall successfully infuses his subject of the black figure into the canon of Western art history, where it has previously been peripheral.

The Rococo surface of Vignette is accentuated by the scene of a pleasant moment and wistful encounter. Like Marshall’s previous work, however, the new painting simply offers an alternative to recorded storylines, leaving it up to the viewer to detect the irony. It is impossible to regard Vignette as depicting a happy ending. But it is exactly this tension of surface idealism and historical reality that makes it so powerful.

Marshall’s use of cultural symbolism and pictorial devices are informed by his own experiences of the world and his avid collecting of artifacts from classical mythology, folklore, African and African-American history, film history, art, literature, posters and comic books. His resulting paintings including Vignette explode with narratives and textures, linking aspects of art history and American history with reference to the American Civil Rights Movement, the history of slavery, public housing projects, the modern welfare state, social reform and literature, as well as cyclic tales of birth, life, death and love.

The idyllic nature of Vignette causes the viewer to think about the struggles that African-Americans still have to overcome. On the surface, the work appears to be about the attainment of bliss, a return to the Garden of Eden perhaps; still closer inspection reveals at the bottom left a road, bringing us back to the present moment and reminding us of the ongoing turmoil of inner-city life. On an even deeper level, the work also takes on a horrific historical identity of a time when black men and women were stripped of their humanity and often had to run for their lives. Marshall explains: “I’ve always wanted to be a history painter on a grand scale like Giotto and Gericault but the moment when that kind of painting was really possible seems so distant, especially after Pollock and Polke. Nevertheless, I persist, trying to construct meaningful pictures that solicit identification with and reflection on Black existential realities” (K. Marshall “in a letter to Arthur Jafa” in J. R. Kirshner, G. Knight, and U. Prinz, eds., Correspondences: Fourteen Artists from Berlin and Chicago—Berlin: Berlinische Galerie; Chicago: Chicago Cultural Center, 1994, p. 95.).
With a bucolic, playful surface, and layers of historical complexity and meaning, Vignette is a triumph.

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