At Jack Shainman, NY, the artist presents a series of symbolic portraits of the black artist shielded by enormous palettes or perhaps supporting greatly increased means of painting. Other works provide idyllic scenes of seaside retreat, where figures feature the Afro hairstyle and fashions of the 60s, give the ideals of Black Power a mocking sentimentality or remoteness, much as some recent works hint at a desperate escapism there.
Marshall’s work is noted for its Black or Afro-American themes, a dedication to their roles and standing and the compelling means by which he assimilates these to contemporary painting. The concern with schematic or symbolic arrangements of pictorial space (see also Posts 53 and 57) is foremost and traits drawn from folk and commercial depiction (print and not) reinforce the status of common content as genre, through more concerted or accentuated painting (see also Posts 5, 11, 16 and 43).
The work achieved wider recognition in the early 90s, developing from a Neo-Expressionism with African roots, toward more complex themes; more refined drawing. Figures are now resolutely black, given little or no modelling and approach silhouettes (see also Post 13). They take on an elegant, if anonymous or generic quality, recall commercial illustration, while scrolled captions and large, un-stretched canvas supports recall public banners. The artist also includes stencilled floral motifs, often clogged or dripping with vigorous application, photo-collage or imagery denoting a coarse print source, sentimental and decorative motifs alternated with bold, graffiti-like or abstract gestures that further stretch the array of treatments, compound layout and dense surface.
This ‘maximising’ of techniques also has potent resonance in abstract painting at the time (see Posts 10 and 79) and for Marshall forges a crucial integrity not only across painting and print sources, symbolic and literal settings, but positions ‘black’ figures between a racial identity and a wider, pictorial one. In this, he anticipates the work of Kara Walker, but where Walker anchors her milieu in the ante bellum, in vivid folk and children’s tales, Marshall’s genre is more diffuse, contemporary. His figures are also ‘blacked out’ pictorially, but signal a deeply formal, self-conscious presence, occasionally giving sexual episodes a touching, comic aspect; frequently accompanying scenes of loss or neglect. The ‘black’ figure stares back, out of the picture, wary or resigned with childhood or civic ideals, with the gestures and roles available, the sentiments and tokens expected. The ‘black’ figure is as much a blank figure, the role denied or ignored, supplied for the sake of custom, obscured by a welter of formality.
There is often a wistful, elegiac tone, sometimes explicitly historical, but initially loss or departure is also through the accretion of embellishment or correction, the steady corruption of picture and person, often symbolised by the abuse of floral motifs. These tend to pale colours or white, granting the picture deeper symbolic meaning as it obscures or confines figures, amplifies the sense of lack to ‘black’.
Marshall has been prolific and his work subsequently includes more abstract forays, photography, installation, text-only prints and comic strips. The concern with Black Americans has remained, for the most part, but in painting, sources have thinned, technique narrowed. Tone is decidedly lighter. His interest in text in pictures is predictably drawn to comic strips, but the results are somewhat inert, for the injection of ‘black’ content into a stricter form, for the overpowering precedent of Pop Art and his own, more adventurous use of text and picture in earlier work. The shift gives his Black Power slogans a more nostalgic, wry quality, the stern font recalling banal public instruction or faith. As noted, figures featuring the Afro hairstyle also associated with the era, now take on greater modelling, a more rounded, if slighter picture, when not simply comic for conviction or fashions. The lighter tone and iconography seem almost in counterpoint to Walker’s mythic slavery. The ideals of the 60s now deflated proportionate to her excesses. But Marshall has yet to hit upon a style quite as elegant and provocative as Walkers’. That may lie closer to the work of Chris Ofili.
Similarly, in the series of romantic vignettes included in the current show, the pictures are restricted to a range of greys relieved only by saccharine valentines. Again the illustrational style cannot bring the same weight or wealth of meaning to romance or ‘black’ lovers. Marshall’s figures have become more rounded, more comfortable, less ‘black’ or blank, but are more confined for the maturity.
Tuesday, 8 July 2008
Posted by CAP at 20:19