At first glance, Kerry James Marshall’s Plunge appears to be a contemporary interpretation of the canonical “Bathers” motif painted by modernist masters such as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and George Seurat. In the 19th century, paintings such as Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886), in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (Marshall’s hometown), signified the newly gained leisure time of the bourgeois, the middle class who now had time for recreational activities because of the standardization of the work day after the Industrial Revolution. Marshall’s painting relocates the middle class’s summertime pursuits to its 20th century manifestation: the backyard swimming pool. Marshall’s bather wears a leopard-print bikini and white swim cap. She stands at the edge of a diving board with her back to the viewer, about to jump in. A toy boat traverses the pool, trailing the ripple of waves behind it. Beach umbrellas, tall hedges a white picket fence marked “Private” line the pool’s flagstone-tiled edge. Unlike the fathers of modernism, Marshall has painted his bather’s skin the unmodulated black the artist is known for, what the art critic Tracy Zwick has called ‘emphatically black’ and curator and art historian Kobena Mercer has called ‘rhetorical blackness.’
Upon closer inspection, the symbols and texts Marshall has embedded into the painting reveal a narrative about the Middle Passage, the route ships used to cross the Atlantic when bringing slaves from Africa to the Americas from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The pool is identified as the “Atlantic Ocean” by a text banner written in white on the painting’s bottom left edge. As Schwanda Roundtree has interpreted, “The red cross embodied in the painting—a symbol in a number of his works—can be thought of as indicating a state of emergency or an intersection, meaning a place of exchange.” About the text written on the pool rails, Roundtree called upon Marshall to explain, “In Plunge, the diver seems apprehensive about taking that plunge which is sometimes representative of how we take on history: ‘Afrocentricity as backwards one and a half,’ explains Marshall. The idea that blacks can take back things stolen from African Americans, the idea that only when you go back can you go forwards” (S. Roundtree, “Representing the Unrepresentable: Kerry James Marshall at the National Gallery of Art,” The International Review of African American Art, via www.iraaa.museum.hamptonu.edu [Accessed April 9, 2016]).
In the context of the Middle Passage, with the pool restaged as the Atlantic Ocean, the toy boat becomes a slave ship moving from the east to the west as the compass rose above it describes. Such a shift reorients the scale of the picture as art critic Karen Wilkin points out. She asks if the tiny ship in the pool is “a toy boat or a real vessel seen from a distance? ... If pictorial space seems unreliable, so does the ‘real’ space Marshal alludes to. The diver faces a gate marked ‘private,’ although the fence surrounding the pool would seem to define a privileged zone. Does the sign signal protection or exclusion?” (K. Wilkin, “In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall,” New Criterion, Vol. 32, Issue 2, Oct. 2013, p. 43). Marshall elaborates, “There is privilege and status embodied in the image of a flagstone-lined pool in a backyard. A little bit of ambivalence is created by the location of the sign on the gate. It says “Private” on the inside. The figure is occupying the space you would have thought she might have been denied access to. Is this side “private” — or is the other side?” (K. J. Marshall quoted in J. Meyer, In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall (exhibition brochure), Washington, D.C., 2013, p. 4).
Plunge was one of ten paintings included in Marshall’s 2013 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art’s Tower Gallery, a space reserved for the most important and influential American artists, including Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. The exhibition explored Marshall’s paintings that include scenes of water or the sea, including Great America, which reframes the Middle Passage as ride through a haunted boat ride at an amusement park or carnival. Marshall explained the significance of water in his work in an interview with the exhibition’s curator, James Meyer: “Water was the locus of the trauma. The ocean is that vast incomprehensible, what appears to be nothingness. If you ever find yourself on a boat in the middle of the ocean you look around in every direction and don’t see anything. That’s a terrifying experience. Water still has significance relative to this idea of the Middle Passage. It enters into the suburban environment, through the pools in Plunge” (K. J. Marshall quoted in J. Meyer, ibid., p. 4).
Marshall continues, “The moment of the Middle Passage was traumatic. There’s this idea that many of the attitudes and personality developments in black folks in the diaspora are a consequence of this unresolved trauma. There have been attempts by black artists to try and figure out how to represent that in some kind of way. None of those images were ever really satisfactory. I’d always wanted to do a work that addressed the Middle Passage, but because I don’t have any way of comprehending what that experience must have been like, I can only look at some of the aftereffects — how that might have filtered down to generations who still have knowledge, but no direct experience, of it. … We’re not dealing with a genuine historic memory but with information we’ve come to know through indirect sources. As African Americans we’re trying to come to terms with a zero point in an evolving history. We can only locate our point of origin at a “no place” in the middle of a vast sea; it represents nothingness. We’re trying to figure out a way to construct a point of origin from that ‘no place.’ And the reason why we are compelled to do it is because a story has been told. It’s a story to which we feel related. The philosopher Cornel West has said, ‘There are things that one cannot not know.’ For a lot of African Americans, not knowing something about their origins is one of those things. You have to fill in a lot of the gaps” (K. J. Marshall quoted in J. Meyer, ibid., p.1) In this way, Marshall’s bather overlooks the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean with the distance and perspective of history, in search of her past to orient herself in a middle class neighborhood in the present that still excludes her.