Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but grew up in Los Angeles, where he attended the Otis Art Institute, earning his BFA degree there in 1978. During the past three decades he has developed a versatile and sophisticated practice that engages continually with the core questions of identity and belonging, specifically in the context of the African American community. Marshall’s work attends to a number of questions: How do the histories of black people entangle themselves into a dominant account premised on white ascendancy? How can African-Americans identify with conventions of popular culture and art-historical canons that exclude them? How is the fullness of political citizenship and cultural participation to be achieved in the face of an exclusionism that is programmed into the institutions of Western society? Marshall’s dazzling body of work spans drawing, painting, video, photography, and sculptural installations. If he questions the stereotypes that continue to govern the public representation of African- Americans, he also savors the detail and texture of the life-worlds they have shaped and inhabited. His rigorous practice of an empathetic ethnography is tied in with a love of the idiosyncratic, the eccentric, and the fabular.
Marshall’s investigations are underwritten by a magisterial command of visual history. His portraits of black people, which reference the art-historical canon or the archives of cinema and advertising, sharply remind us that white people more typically occupy these niches of the popular imagination. By claiming these pictorial sites for those subliminally or overtly cast as the “Other,” Marshall achieves a coup of consciousness. The politics of perception also informs his Blot series, which might otherwise appear to be abstractionist gestures of homage to the Rorschach test. While these paintings dramatize our need to make sense of pattern, they also expose our reliance on the familiar when confronted with the strange. Our experience of the strange, our xenophobia, is too often filtered through the prejudices and predilections, the concepts and categories that we have already internalized. Marshall’s art invites us to discard such cognitive comfort and evolve fresh and possibly risky forms of engagement outside our horizon of ease.