AN INTERVIEW WITH KERRY JAMES MARSHALL
By Charles Rowell

Callaloo, Vol. 21 No. 1, p.263-272

    

   

This interview was conducted by telephone on February 9, 1998, between Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chicago, Illinois.

ROWELL: What occasioned your series called "Lost Boys"? What were you trying to achieve in it?

MARSHALL: Well, what brought it about, or where the idea originated, I guess, had something to do with a slightly autobiographical situation. Not myself directly, but my youngest brother who ended up in prison--he spent seven years in prison--and went into jail just shortly before I started the Lost Boys series. A part of the reason I started that group of paintings was a reaction to how I felt about him being incarcerated. I mean it's one thing when you know other people or hear about people who are taken to jail or to prison and especially through certain violent kinds of incidents. But it's another thing when it's now at home and it's your own brother. I mean the impact of that experience was really kind of extreme for me. And so I just . . . I thought about it a lot. And thinking about that plus the weight of the numbers of black men who end up going through a lot of traumatic experiences kind of sat heavy on my mind. I have always been interested in children's literature, because there was a point at which I had wanted to be a children's book illustrator. And one of the books that struck me was Peter Pan by J.M. Berry and the whole situation of the lost boys . . . you know, a group of young boys who were lost down in Never, Never Land, where they never really had to grow up, a kind of willful underdevelopment on their part. But 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 often never had an opportunity to grow up because there were far too many young black men cut down very early in their lives, you know. And many of them probably with promising futures. Futures that are kind of wasted. And so it was thinking about that book and that concept of being lost from Peter Pan and then applying it to a concept of being lost: lost in America, lost in the ghetto, lost in public housing, lost in joblessness, and lost in illiteracy. And all of those things sort of changed . . . all of those things kind of came together with the fact that my own brother now seemed to be one of those lost. And that's why I started that group of paintings.

ROWELL: What is the relationship of the technique or style in these paintings to the rest of your work? What about its imagery also? What, if any, is the relationship of your painting to tradition in American painting in general?

MARSHALL: If I think about them in terms of the traditions they address in painting, I wouldn't say that it was limited so much to a tradition in American painting as much as a tradition of painting icons and/or a kind of elegiac portraiture. Look all the way back to Egyptian funerary portraits. So I would link them more specifically to that kind of a tradition and then from there into more medieval and early renaissance traditions of portraiture than I would to any particular kind of American style of painting. If anything could be said to be an American component to the painting, there's a certain element of gestural abstraction in those portraits, especially in the background. And also a certain quality of graffiti in the application of that kind of gestural kind of abstract painting in the back. If we had to link that to something that might be peculiarly American, that might be the closest. The Lost Boys was a way of combining various styles of painting into one painting so that you can have a representational image, very stylized, like the figures are, and then you add to that or superimpose on it or overlay a different style of painting. Instead of taking a particular moment in history and making paintings that are a response to that, I'm looking back and taking all of our history and trying as many of these formal styles as I can and incorporating them in my painting--as many as will support the idea that I'm trying to communicate, not just taking things at random, but as many as I can to support the idea of what the pictures are about.

ROWELL: Will you say more about traditions? How you are working with or against or within traditions?

MARSHALL: Well, I'm never actually working against traditions, because I think as artists in the late 20th century, we inherit or are the beneficiaries of all of the stylistic and conceptual developments that artists from previous generations have handed down to us. And it's not that we necessarily have to react against it all the time, but I think we simply incorporate it and then find ways to synthesize all of those things into something that none of the artists who preceded us had access to or had an opportunity to achieve. If I look back at da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, you know, Raphael, Delacroix, all of those people. If I look back at those artists' work, none of them had access to the kinds of formal developments that came with people like Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock and De Kooning and Rothko. They didn't have access to that. So there was a way in which they didn't have the ingredients to put things together in ways that artists who are operating in this historical moment can. So I'm not reacting against tradition--I'm simply trying to find a way to extend the dialogue and make paintings that appear to be fresh in some way.

ROWELL: I like the idea that you're trying to make things fresh. When I study your work, I get the feeling that you are also reinventing in a positive sense--actually, that you are not only reinventing but also holding conversations with other artists. You seem to counterstate those artists who misrepresent or maliciously distort the image of black people. That negative representation of black people is also a tradition in American art. In your paintings you reposition the black figure in his/her landscape; you make a subject of the black figure for the world to see and identify with.

MARSHALL: An important part of my project as an artist is to address that issue. There has been a tradition of negative representation of black people and the counter-tradition to that has been a certain kind of positive image, a thrust on the part of some black artists to offset the degradation that maybe some of the other negative stereotypic images present. But both, in a lot of ways, ended up being a kind of stereotype that denied a certain kind of complexity in the way the black image could be represented. So I thought, well, there's got to be a way to do both, to do two things at once. One is to take on the whole issue of negative representation that referred to it, without being it at the same time. And then to not fall into the trap of swinging to the other side and assuming that every representation that a black artist makes of a black person has to somehow present a positive kind of picture of him. But to try to find ways that operate right on the borderline, so that whenever you saw it, saw the image, maybe your first reaction might take you back to something that appears to be a negative representation. And a lot of people react to my work like that initially because the figures in the paintings are so black. Well, you might initially react to the work like that, but upon closer inspection of what's actually happening in the figures themselves, you can see that it's not what you thought it was in the first place. I mean there's actually nothing negative about the representation of those people, except if you sort of assume that this extreme blackness of them . . .

ROWELL: Do you mean black in color?

MARSHALL: Black in color, yeah. If you assume the idea of blackness as being somehow negative, then you might react that way to them when you first see them, and might be blind to the subtleties, the subtleties of character that I try to develop in all of the figures. The reason why I painted them as black as they are was so that they operate as rhetorical figures. They are literally and rhetorically black in the same way that we describe ourselves as black people in America; we use that extreme position to designate ourselves in contrast to a white power structure of the country or the white mainstream. Now, for me as a black painter, I'm as interested in participating in a general dialogue about art-making as anybody else. But I want to be able to do it in such a way that I don't have to leave behind that black representation. So what I try to do is make the paintings be as much about the way paintings can be done, meaning, you know, historically and technically, how paintings look and how they incorporate style and, at the same time, seem to be as much about the subject that is represented in them, so that when you see the painting, somehow the way it's painted has to be so undeniably compelling that you can't separate the image that's pictured in it from the way the painting is made. So that you have to take them both as a whole package. And one of the reasons why I took that on as a project was because there was a period when a lot of black artists, who, like anybody else, wanted to be part of the mainstream, assumed they had to let go of the black representation and go into something that was more fully abstract; and by it being abstract, maybe you couldn't see up front that the person who made the painting wasn't just like anybody else who made a painting that was abstract, maybe like De Kooning or Rothko or somebody. Because I think there had always been this way in which the moment a black artist presented images of black people, then the issues in the work seemed to always collapse into simply social and political issues, and any sort of aesthetic value that the work could have seemed to slip out of the discussion, so that the work was seen as a social phenomenon rather than an aesthetic phenomenon and, as such, it was easy to compartmentalize that work and put it into spaces where it was appropriate at the moment to show off black artists, which is why you see a lot of black artists who don't get the opportunity to do exhibitions until February, you know, in Black History Month. And so I'm just saying that a part of what I'd always wanted to do was really to make work that operated in very complex ways, aesthetically, formally, and also content-wise and conceptually. And to do that in a way that had a visual authority that had to be addressed along with the image that was there.

ROWELL: Will you speak about some of the paintings? For example, will you juxtapose "Lost Boys, AKA Black Sunny" and "Lost Boys, AKA Black Al"? What are you trying to achieve in these two paintings? There is a certain kind of complexity about them.

MARSHALL: I'm not sure you could really juxtapose those two, because they're a part of the same group and they try to do the same thing; but one of the things I tried to do, what I really tried to do, at the same time that I reduced their presence or their value, their color value, to an extreme black, was to try to always make sure that they all had individual identities, so that the only way you could say that they kind of all look alike in a way, was simply the fact that they were both black. But when you look at them individually, they have very different and individual personalities. You know, because they are sort of composite portraits that are based on people, so that they don't really collapse into looking exactly the same, which makes them less a stereotype of that sort easily transferable from one to another, and more I guess you could say a kind of archetype, being archetypically black.

ROWELL: And then in "Lost Boys, AKA Eight Ball" and "Lost Boys, AKA Baby Brother," flowers form the backdrop. But in "Lost Boys, AKA Baby Brother," there's not only the use of flowers; there are also images of women. Will you talk about how the flowers and the images of women function in these two paintings? Why are the women white?

MARSHALL: There's a way in which the flower pattern in a lot of those paintings, especially where it's more lush and kind of rich, helps foreground the matter-of-fact, that these are as much about painting as they are about the image that's in there. And that's what happens in the painting AKA Eight Ball. I mean, there's a lot . . . there's a lot of stuff going on in the AKA Eight Ball; it's a more densely painted floral background. But in the Baby Brother painting, even though there's a lot of patterning back there, it's kind of not built up with the same kind of rich, lush, imposto of paint that's in the AKA Eight Ball painting. There aren't the same kinds of loose, fluid paint. The ones on the AKA Baby Brother are more clearly stamped on, than they are in the other ones. And as far as those images, before I started the Lost Boys paintings, I had been doing a series of paintings with the covers of Harlequin romance novels collaged onto the canvas, and those images in the background of the AKA Baby Brother painting, are from those Harlequin romance novel covers. One of the things I was thinking about while working on that painting was in a way, you look at those images on the Harlequin romance novel covers, and they're a certain type of stereotype themselves. They are a stereotype of white women, they're a certain kind of stereotype of the beauty of white women. And then you have this image of Baby Brother, who is this guy . . . I mean that plastic bag on his head. It's like, the shower cap, the Jheri curl cap, and stuff. Well, in a way they're sort of clashing two different kinds of stereotypes in that painting. One is to say something about beauty and desire and the other which says something about a combination of desire and repulsiveness at the same time. Because there was a period when Jheri curls were really kind of popular and kind of sexy, but there was also this part where a certain group of black men who did the Jheri curl thing also wore those plastic bags on their heads out in public. And wearing that plastic bag, being able to wear that plastic bag out in public, signified a certain level of coolness. And I haven't thought about these things in a long time, so it's taking me a while . . . but in order to pull off that level of coolness, to go out in public with your Jheri curl bag and stuff on, there had to also be a certain level of notoriety in terms of being notorious. To be able to go out in public with that bag on and not be ridiculed for having it on, like even in the black community, you had to have a certain kind of heart, I guess, and a certain kind of toughness. And I thought, in a lot of ways, most of the people who were able to go out and do that--and I think I saw a lot of them do it--were a lot of gang bangers, people who weren't really all that concerned about what somebody thought about them, partly because if you were in the neighborhood, you kind of knew who they were and wouldn't dare say anything that might even be remotely critical about their appearance on the street with the Jheri curl bag on their head. It also signified in a certain way that the way you look now is key to the way you're gonna look later when you're out, at your most cool and your most sexy, your most attractive. So it says a little bit about your status as a player. And one of the things that was a stereotypically high level of achievement for a real player was to be able to get white women. So that was another level of cool. Maybe that's as far as I can go now in talking about the inclusion of those images, the white women's images in the Baby Brother painting. And so those are just some of the things that I was trying to refer to or was thinking about with the inclusion of those images in that painting. Because I think there's always been this sort of historical imperative that your success is incomplete in a way without a white woman.

ROWELL: Will you talk about "Dark and Handsome"? Will you speak again about technique as well as cultural particulars in that painting? The face in this portrait is partially enclosed by a circle. There are points of light--as if they were reflections--in his face. What do you want us postmoderns anywhere in the world to see in this portrait? You are not making paintings about being black; you are using black subjectivity to raise questions about humanity at the close of the 20th century.

MARSHALL: Well, yeah, I mean, just living in the world. It's like they are and are not simply about being black. There's a kind of matter-of-factness about their blackness, which is one of the reasons why I think I make them that extreme. And so then it's not a question. They are emphatically what they are; they are black figures. Now, beyond that, what else are they? In Dark and Handsome and Dark and Lovely (they were a pair of paintings), there was a woman that went with it. And the title comes from that . . . you know . . . is it a Johnson Product? Dark and Lovely?

ROWELL: Yes, Dark and Lovely is a hair product.

MARSHALL: Right. It's a hair care product. But the notion of dark and lovely, at some point in history had been a contradiction in terms in a way. You know, in terms of color consciousness in the black community, there had always been, and still exists in some ways, a kind of reaction against the whole notion that somebody who is very dark can also be very pretty and attractive at the same time. And so a part of the reason I did this Dark and Handsome painting as a companion piece to the Dark and Lovely painting was just to propose the idea. Just to propose the notion that just as blackness is apparent, their beauty can also be apparent in their blackness. And those little stars, those little lights you see, kind of hovering around his face--these are sort of points of brilliance where you see the kind of luster, the shine, the sparkle. It's that kind of twinkle in the eye, a reference to a kind of gleaming beauty, you know, a twinkling, sparkling kind of beauty. That's what those things represent.

ROWELL: How many paintings are in the Lost Boys series?

MARSHALL: There are actually only nine portraits and then the one big painting called "Lost Boys." That was the centerpiece of the exhibition I did. The painting is a 10 x 10 foot square.

ROWELL: What is the subject there?

MARSHALL: Well, the subject is kind of the same thing, this loss of innocence, this loss of youth. It's kind of a memorial painting to lost innocence.

ROWELL: One figure or many figures?

MARSHALL: There are actually two black figures and then a small red cupie doll-like figure standing in the foreground of the painting. And these two figures are in what could be a toy land; it's not like they're actually in a space that looks like a toy store or anything, but they are playing with toys and playing with very adult toys. One of the figures in the painting is sitting inside in a model of a fast car, but it's a car that's connected to one of those twenty-five cent rides where you put your money in the thing and the little car rocks back and forth. It's one of those toys you see out in front of department stores and things. So one of the figures is sitting in that, but it's a black car with fire details and stuff like that on it, so it's a very adult kind of racing car. And then the other figure is standing at the base of that ride with a pink water pistol in his hand. And all of this stuff takes place on a floor plane that's broken up into a black and white checkered pattern and in between, on the two sides, what looks like a pair of white gates, and then there's the cupie doll figure in front, standing between some callalilies that are laid out on the floor behind it. And then written near each one of the figures are dates: one is June 21st and the other is September 1st or 3rd or something like that. And those dates are important because they bracket summer vacation from school. It's from the last day of school till the first day of school after Labor Day. And that period, especially for kids, for young people, is a period with no real responsibility, the period when they spend the most time simply being children and playing and experiencing things without a lot of structure around them. So if you think about all of this in terms of this whole notion of the Lost Boys, here are these two kids playing with these grown-up toys, grown-up toys that in a lot of cases end up being the death of a lot of young black kids. A part of the reason why this came about was a story I had read in the L.A. Times in the mid- to late-1980s about a little kid who was shot by a police officer who saw him turn towards him with what he thought was a gun but turned out to be a water pistol. The figure in the painting that has the water pistol in his hand actually comes from a painting I tried to make years before, unsuccessfully. But I don't think I had really internalized the event enough then and certainly hadn't developed the level of skill and complexity I really think I needed in order to articulate this idea successfully. This kid who was a latchkey kid in a way, left home by his mother, and she had locked him into a room in the apartment. But some neighbors heard some noise and called the police. When the police got there, they saw the doorknob of this room tied to a piece of furniture outside. They heard noise inside, and the kid was in there at dusk, you know, sort of in the evening watching television. And so when the police officer kicks the door in, the little kid turns to see what's going on, and he has this water pistol in his hand; and the police officer, as soon as he sees something that looks kind of like a gun and a figure, he just shoots and kills this little kid. I was affected by that and wanted to do something about it, but at the time the only thing I could do was make an illustration of it, which wasn't what my objective was really. I wanted to do something more meaningful; I had more levels at which it could be read. And it took awhile for it to come back, but it did, in this painting called the Lost Boys.

ROWELL: In your paintings, what do you do for yourself? And what do you want to do for us?

MARSHALL: Well, I tell you there are a couple of levels at which I achieve satisfaction, I guess, or at least fill a need I think I need to satisfy. It's part egocentric in the sense that a part of what I've always wanted to do was to make paintings that were so undeniably compelling that they couldn't . . . that there was no way they couldn't find their place in mainstream museums amongst other works that had the capacity to move people. Works that had to be taken on their own terms as paintings first, and then as paintings from a black source and about a black subject. I wantedto find a way to make sure that when young black kids went to the museum, that they didn't just have to be inspired by the work of European artists but could also be inspired by the work of a black painter and by work that didn't have to be segregated into a black section of the museum, like there must be something a little deficient or something about it. And I wanted to do work that entered into the museum on a scale that was equal to anything else you might see in there. That was something that was always really important to me. Because I know, when I started out as an artist, there were books on the work of black artists that I had seen in the library, but when I went to the museums, I hardly ever, if ever, saw any of that work. And if I saw it, it existed in the museum on such a modest scale that it never had the same kind of imposing presence that a lot of the big major works you saw in museums seemed to have. And so I thought, well, I would like to do work that entered the museum on that level, that wasn't sort of tentative about its existence. That sort of declared itself to be worthwhile in a very confident and authoritative voice. And the voice I chose was a painting voice. When I finally got into school at the university level, there was this notion that painting was a kind of dead medium, kind of an exhausted practice. That was sort of the more prevalent idea in the academy at the time I entered school, and, if I accepted it as the case, then that meant that there was probably going to be no chance that paintings by any African-American artist would ever enter into the museum or the historical record to be available for another generation of artists, like myself, to be inspired by. And so I also set out to find out if there was still some way that a person could make paintings that existed in a contemporary context and held their own in the face of all of these other options that artists in the late 20th century had available to them, and held their own in a very meaningful way. So, that's how I saw myself; I was on a mission, you could say, and I had a project that required a certain understanding of the historical development or the trajectory that art had followed from the Renaissance or before until now. I had to find a way to strategically place myself and the work I did in relationship to that history and to do it in such a way that it had a chance to be included in the general discourse about art-making and painting in particular. Another part of what I've always been interested in as an artist, above being simply a painter, was that--if you look at what artists can do, and I mean this in terms of film, video, photography, sculpture, anything, there's a way in which I wanted to demonstrate how one person alone without a lot of money to either go to college or buy expensive materials or have a lot of expensive equipment or a crew of people to work with--can make significant and important work in spite of this lack. Because you're drawing and painting, it doesn't mean you can't produce significant work simply because video or film seems to be a more dynamic and dominant medium to work with nowadays. There are a lot of black people who probably would like to make films, but they can't raise the kind of money it takes to make them. Even filmmakers who've been quite successful make so few films that it in some ways stunts their development, because they are not able to practice the craft regularly enough to develop a certain level of mastery in it and to make enough mistakes, so that they can, out of all that, do some really significant work. But if all that's required is some skill that comes from you alone, then there isn't much limit to what you can do. You don't have to ask anybody whether you can, you don't have to depend on anybody to let you do it. You just go and do it yourself. That's been an important issue for me. You can say something really important and significant in something as simple as drawing and painting. And then you can take the skills you acquire in that discipline and apply them to other disciplines and find a way to do something in that too. So you can achieve a lot as an individual in spite of the fact that you can't afford to go to college for six years to get a Master of Fine Arts degree; you simply have to have the will and the desire to do it. So the way I've approached my whole career has been to help demonstrate that to people who in a lot of ways come from situations that are similar to the one that I came from.

ROWELL: What do you mean when you refer to "the situation" you "came from"?

MARSHALL: Well, in the sense that I came from a family where going to college was not encouraged, because it was never something that even came up in discussion. I came from a family who thought that you went to school until you got out of high school and then you got a job.

ROWELL: Where was this?

MARSHALL: That was in Los Angeles. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. And only the third person in my extended family, that I knew of, to have gone to college. It certainly wasn't something that my father encouraged. It was something that I had to decide I needed to do on my own. I know there are a lot of people who grew up in families like that. They're not planning to send their kids to college. I mean if they get there, then it will be by some other means. But I hope if my life becomes an example in any way for somebody, it's partly to show that going to school is a wonderful opportunity; but if you can't find the means to go to school, that doesn't mean that somehow you can't achieve a lot of things. There are other ways to do it. There are parallel paths to going to college that can get you to the same places. It requires the same kind of hard work and study and dedication, because you've got to know something before you can achieve anything. I went to a junior college for two years before I went to the Otis Art Institute. Then after I got my BFA, I didn't go to graduate school. That didn't have any bearing on how much I was going to know really, because there's a library in just about every town. And if you can read, you can go to the library. You can read the same books that are going to be handed to students in graduate school to read. And then you talk to people. And you devote yourself diligently to the work at hand. And if you do that, if you're really concerned and careful about and dedicated to the work you do, well then you can still achieve the same heights that somebody who went and got the paper degrees can, and you can even exceed the levels of success that somebody who went to graduate school achieved. But it's all in how much you know and how good you are and what you can do. All of those things have been very important to me. I wanted always to be an example, to set an example for what somebody else like me could do. When I was a kid, you know, I saw something that excited me and I wanted to do it, and I found all of the right people who could help me get there. Some of them I found through hanging out at the library, every day looking at every single book on the shelves.

ROWELL: What kinds of books?

MARSHALL: At first I started out looking at every single art book that was in the library. I just walked down the stacks and picked up every book there. I never went to the card catalog to find anything. I just saw what was in there and looked at every single one of them. And that was what it took. I learned a lot very early by doing that. I learned stuff that I wouldn't have even known to ask somebody about. That's how it was for me. I hear a lot of people talking about the way people are tracked into certain positions, tracked into certain professions, tracked into certain blue collar kinds of skills and things like that. I guess you can be tracked into those kinds of positions if you ask somebody what they think you can do. But if you just decide for yourself what you want to do and just go do it, you don't have to ask anybody. And you can't be stopped.

Kerry James Marshall, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, is an associate professor at the University of Illinois (Chicago). He has exhibited his paintings in group and solo shows throughout the United States--e.g., in Seattle, Los Angeles, Little Rock, Pittsburgh, Miami, Fort Worth, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and numerous other cities. His paintings are also part of permanent collections in The Art Institute of Chicago, the Denver Museum of Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), The Studio Museum of Harlem, the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), and the Whitney Museum of American Art.


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