Independent Agency: An evening with Kerry James Marshall

by Jihyun Ro

"When I think of myself as an artist I think of myself as a contemporary history painter," said Kerry James Marshall at his lecture on Wednesday, October 24 at the Sackler Museum. Marshall, a Chicago-based artist whose work deals with African American urban experiences, captivated his audience with images of his work and his thoughts on the representation of minority groups through the course of art history. Dealing with what it means to be an artist, Marshall has experimented in a variety of mediums over the course of his career, from dreamlike portraits and still-life paintings to comics and installations, all responding to the absence of certain images, especially images of African Americans, in both formal art and popular culture.

Marshall’s belief is that we ought to know more about African Americans who have a presence in history but have become a footnote because of the lack of visual representation dedicated to them. His current show in Vienna -- Who’s Afraid of Red Black and Green -- deals with notions of race and perception using a chromatic motif based on red, black, and green hues. This motif, according to Marshall, has been a recurring theme for the last five to ten years of his career, and has lead him to question the relationship between the production methods behind art and the final product.

Marshall spoke about the point where a person, as an artist, stops producing work that is aesthetically pleasing or politically-socially engaging, and what crossing this threshold means to him as an artist. Having spent his career trying to "be in the narrative of art," as he put it, Marshall’s notion of success came at the time when his painting De Style was displayed in a museum.

Now that he has become an internationally renowned artist, Marshall seems to have finally achieved the cultural relevance that he sought out.

Marshall’s lecture provided me with a new insight into the practice of art. As a painter, I heavily connected with his vision of art as a series of problems that needs to be solved. The independent agency of the artist in needed in the creation of a real work of art, as opposed to mere observation and replication. The issues that Marshall dealt with, namely the need for artists to mold history and define cultural lines, becomes extremely applicable during an age where anything can be art, and it is up to the artist to manipulate his environment to produce work that matters.

[Caption: Kerry James Marshall's "De Style" (1993)]