In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall presents 10 paintings and more than 20 works on paper, affording a context for understanding the Gallery’s own Marshall painting, Great America (1994), and its powerful imagery. 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.
The exhibition coincides with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall was conceived following the 2011 purchase of Great America by the Gallery’s Collectors Committee. This painting is the centerpiece of the exhibition, which brings together a sequence of related paintings and drawings to explore important themes and imagery woven throughout Marshall’s work. Great America depicts two couples in a small boat exiting an amusement park Tunnel of Love ride. Named for an amusement park that Marshall visited as a child, this seemingly innocent scene of middle-class leisure is filled with troubling details, such as the appearance of ghosts in the dark tunnel, the bobbing head of a man in the water, and an abstract shape, painted in thick brushstrokes, pointing at a woman's head like a rifle.
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.
Other paintings drawn from museum and private collections from around the United States include Nat Turner with the Head of His Master (2011), a painting in the old-master tradition of images of freedom fighters (including the Gallery’s painting by Andrea del Castagno, David with the Head of Goliath, 1450/1455), and the maquettes for Marshall’s 2008 celebrated pair of frescoes at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that portray President Washington at Mount Vernon and President Jefferson at Monticello, respectively. The exhibition also includes more than 20 preparatory drawings for many of these works.
Born in 1955 in Birmingham, Kerry James Marshall moved with his family to Watts, Los Angeles, in 1963. He was educated at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and currently lives in Chicago. Marshall is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, an NEA Visual Art Fellowship, and many other awards. He has had one-person exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus; the Vancouver Art Gallery; the Renaissance Society in Chicago; and the Vienna Secession.
A fully illustrated brochure featuring an interview with the artist will be available in the exhibition.
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