"When I started making pin-up images it was a response to the absence in a book like Taschen’s, or the early history of Playboy magazines, or Miss America or Miss Universe pageants. All those pageants, at one time, didn’t put a black female body in the competition for who is the most beautiful or who is the most desirable." Kerry James Marshall
In Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Pin-up), the image of a nude Black woman is suspended in an exuberant pose and juxtaposed with symbols of the Black Power Movement. The painting’s background is composed of bricks painted in the black, green, yellow and red colors that signify the Pan-African flag and used in traditional Kente cloth. A hair pick adorned with the raised fist—a symbol of solidarity and resistance adopted by the Black Panthers and used as a salute in the Black Power movement—is held up by an Afro, a hairstyle also associated with the movement. The raised fist tastefully covers the genitals and breasts of the painting’s “pin-up” girl and suggests a sexual act. The woman, the hair and the hair pick are all painted in different tonalities and sheens of black—not the color of black skin, but of black pigment—applied in brushstrokes that heighten visibility or obscure the figure and symbols from differentiation and visibility.
Over the past thirty years, Marshall has been persistent in representing Black visual culture in ways that counter stereotypes. Marshall describes his “over-arching project [as] representing aspects of Black Culture rarely made visible in contemporary picture making. Secondarily, I am also interested in foregrounding the black figure in popular genres of painting not usually associated with the socio-political frame in which much African American art is seen through” (K. J. Marshall, “Press Release,” Koplin del Rio, http://www.koplindelrio.com/content/kerry-james-marshall [Accessed April, 3, 2016]).
Thus, Marshall works to enter Black people, subjects and experiences into the art historical canon and collective visual data bank of images from which they have historically been excluded.
In Untitled (Pin-up), Marshall reconceptualizes the pin-up girl trope by portraying a nude black woman instead of the typical white woman. Speaking of the inspiration for the work, Marshall said, “I bought a Taschen book called The Great American Pin-Up and it’s full of these titillating images of girls with their skirts flying up but not one single Black or Asian figure in it. When I started making pin-up images it was a response to the absence in a book like Taschen’s, or the early history of Playboy magazines, or Miss America or Miss Universe pageants. All those pageants, at one time, didn’t put a black female body in the competition for who is the most beautiful or who is the most desirable” (K. J. Marshall quoted in “Kerry James Marshall, interview: Putting black artists into the textbooks,” The Independent, Oct. 17, 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/kerry-james-marshall-interview-putting-black-artists-into-the-textbooks-9801055.html [Accessed April 3, 2014]).
Untitled (Pin-up) relates to Marshall’s larger artistic production, specifically to paintings that reimagine canonical images from art history and popular culture. This task is epitomized by Marshall’s ongoing video project since 2003—Gleaning: An Image Reclamation Project is an ongoing undertaking, begun in 2003, an ever-growing catalogue of images collected from the world of Black faces and bodies. The painting also relates to a series of Black Paintings the artist has made since the turn of the millennium that depict scenes important to the Black Power movement in different shades and tonalities of black. Upon first glance these paintings register as all-black monochromes, but as one acclimates to the light over time, the paintings reveal themselves as complex and detailed scenes only visible with slow, patient looking.
In works such as Untitled (Pin-up) and the Black Paintings, Marshall examines the multiple meanings of darkness and blackness as a color and a race, as a medium and a subject matter, what the curator and art historian Kobena Mercer has called “rhetorical blackness.” Black paint represents black skin, things kept from being visible or in the dark, and histories that have been hidden, repressed or erased. Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Marshall’s figures are present but unseeable as seeing and making pictures are conditioned by the colonialism and Eurocentrism in the history of art and the valuation of dark skin. In the case of Pin-up, Marshall directs his commentary towards American culture’s inability to see black women, literally and figuratively, as objects of desire.
“In the field of representation there’s the privileged image and the marginalized image. And the privileged image takes up a lot of space in our imagination and a lot of space in our desire. And it’s often the female figure, marketing uses that male desire for female contact. … I was trying to figure out a way to introduce into the conversation an idealized form of the black female body but one that didn’t conform to all the stereotypical characteristics of the white female body. So in all the pinups I did, there’s always a bit of refusal there where the body doesn’t completely surrender to the paradigm of the genre. There’s always a bit of pullback in them” (K. J. Marshall quoted in “Kerry James Marshall on Look See at David Zwirner,” Phaidon, October 2014, http://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2014/october/14/kerry-james-marshall-on-look-see-at-david-zwirner/ [Accessed April 3, 2014]).
As the art critic Nav Haq neatly summed up, “Marshall’s implication with these works and others is that we need many more images in our collective image bank that overtly require us to consider racial difference. Marshall’s understanding of society’s image bank casts it as a sort of empire—something that yields great currency and great powers of discrimination, and serves to impose and normalize ideals. The flow of “traffic” occurs in one direction only, meaning that individuals have relatively little control over, or ownership of, what they see. His ambition is to demonstrate that we can make images our own: reclaim and adapt them, and create new ones that represent the individual realities we actually exist in” (N. Haq, “The Lack in the Image Bank: Kerry James Marshall’s Reclamation of Pictures,” Mousse Magazine, Summer 2013, n.p.). Marshall himself summed up his goals for paintings like Pin-up in an interview: “However problematic people might think the idea of the pinups are, you still can’t allow the field to be dominated by a single type of image and not have a counter-image that represents something else. That’s unacceptable” (K.J. Marshall to C. Walsh, “The Art of the Possible,” News.Harvard.edu, October 31, 2012).