Kerry James Marshall’s work is magisterial. And yet he is an easeful painter, even though blackness in America is not an easeful subject. When he began his career in the 1970s there were no black artists celebrated for their depiction of other black people. His black people are very black indeed, darker surely than natural skin tones. But this blackness is about more than skin colour: it expands in all directions and includes black history in its totality as well as its exclusion from western modernism.
Last year Marshall was the subject of a large and critically acclaimed show ‘Mastry’ in America . This exhibition in London is called ‘History of Painting’ and he has said that in it he wanted ‘to take a stab at examining not only the origins of painting as practice, but also the endpoint of what paintings end up being after their original use has been exhausted’. This is an ambitious and interesting aim.
The paintings do not only investigate but also update Old Master conventions A pair of portraits Day and Night show both sitters leaning forwards, their arms apparently resting on a ledge, in the manner of Dutch seventeenth century genre pictures. They hold a prosaic cup and a glass but their heads are encircled by a nimbus of cloud, which gives them a spiritual quality, evident especially in the woman’s lovely smile (image 1).
Another long established subject in the western (read white male) canon is that of a female undressing. Here the woman with the turquoise turban looks as if she is dancing, as she rubs herself dry with a yellow towel (image 2). The woodland glade of Tintoretto’s Susannah and the Elders has become what looks like public housing, with a voyeuristic neighbour across the way.
The most complicated painting is Untitled (Underpainting) 2018 (image 3). The ‘Underpainting’ of the title refers to the layer of burnt umber paint which Renaissance painters used first. The two panels show a stylish couple arriving in a museum gallery full of visitors, including the usual groups of bored schoolchildren. There is much to look at and talk about in this painting but for reasons of space I am just going to draw your attention to the two labels beside them (image 4). A gentle poke in the ribs.
Kerry James Marshall ‘History of Painting’ is At David Zwirner, 24 Grafton Street, London W1S 4EZ until 10 November.