The American artist Kerry James Marshall (born 1955, Birmingham Alabama) remains committed to the representational tradition of American history painting. His work explores the experiences of African Americans and the presentations of American history that often marginalize black people.
This summer the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC hosts the city's first solo exhibition of the work of Kerry James Marshall. Entitled, In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall the exhibition presents 10 paintings and more than 20 works on paper, affording a context for understanding the Gallery’s own Marshall painting, Great America (1994). As a group, these paintings evoke the Middle Passage of slave ships between West Africa and North America, and the themes of immigration, class mobility, and aspiration central to American life.
Great America is one of several works by Marshall to depict human beings and water. The sailboat named Wanderer in Voyager (1992) recalls the last documented slave ship, which set sail from the Congo and landed in Jekyll Island, Georgia, in 1858. In Baptist (1992), a figure treads water in the ocean between Africa and North America, while in Plunge (1992), a woman jumps into a pool identified as the Atlantic Ocean. A toy boat floats in the water; the flagstone patio and white picket fence locate the scene in a contemporary suburb. While the gate at the entrance to the pool is painted PRIVATE, it is unclear if the diver resides inside this private space—or has been excluded from it.
The enormous The Gulf Stream (2003) was inspired by Winslow Homer’s famous painting of a black man on a shipwreck surrounded by sharks (1899, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). In contrast to Homer’s doomed survivor, Marshall’s middle-class family enjoys a leisurely sail on the open sea as gray clouds gather on the horizon.
In Bang (1994), an image of the Fourth of July, a girl holds up the American flag while two boys say the Pledge of Allegiance in a neighborhood of white clapboard houses and picket fences. Two doves hold up a Revolutionary War banner (“Resistance to tyranny is obedience to god”), while the text “We Are One” from the Great Seal of the United States is painted below. Yet the round-topped Weber grill emits a coil of black smoke, and a garden hose—suggestive of the water hoses used against the children who marched for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963—encircles the girl like a snake.
In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall marks the sixth in a series of Tower installations focusing on developments in art since midcentury. The exhibition coincides with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
National Gallery of Art Website