Throughout his career, artist Kerry James Marshall has turned his environment into his muse, turning to the cultural and social landscape of America.
A native of Birmingham, at the age of seven, he moved from the South to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. He grew up there during the Civil Rights Movement.
Marshall now resides in Chicago and is known for creating series of works based on outdoor landscapes and the interactions of black people within them.
His new exhibit, Garden of Delights, is currently on view at the Contemporary Art Museum, and his mural ‘Watts 1963’ is in the permanent collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum and will be on view when the museum's East Building re-opens on June 29th.
“If you think about what a garden represents – on the one hand, it’s a place of pleasure…what I really wanted to show is a history of the way that we as black people really like each other," says Marshall, who received a McArthur Genius Grant in 1997.
"You see very little imagery and representations that seem to suggest that black people really like each other. There are all these different dimensions – all these different levels in which the relationships we have with each other are satisfying and pleasant to see. I’m just taking this as an opportunity to kind of show the breadth of relationships.”
Here is an edited excerpt of the conversation:
On what influences his work: “It’s an idea of who I think I am in the world, and I think that has a lot to do with seeing myself as a black man in America. Growing up in Birmingham in Ensley, and then we moved to Watts, and then I grew up most of my life in South Central LA. And then I lived briefly in Silver Lake, and in Venice. But then when I went to New York, I lived in Harlem. So it was always important to me to be in a neighborhood that was historically black. Part of what’s really important is you have to demonstrate that you can get to the top from there, and you can do that and not have to sacrifice or abandon the idea of being a black person in America.”
On painting figures that are the same shade of color: “When you’re developing as an artist what you’re trying to find is something that distinguishes you from everybody else. You can be one of many people doing a certain kind of stuff, or you can be out there by yourself singularly doing a thing that everybody associates with you, and that’s how you call attention to yourself. So arriving at that black figure was really important for me, because I was trying to create something that didn’t look like Charles White’s work, that didn’t look like Jacob Lawrence’s work, that didn’t look like somebody else’s work, but was also black. I wanted it to be mine. I painted them black because they’re rhetorical figures. Politically and culturally we are described as black people, so if you’re going to represent, represent black people.”
On what he hopes to inspire: “What I’d like to see in my lifetime is a culture of black people in the world who are not simply trying to be a part of somebody else’s success make their way in a world that’s really being constructed and determined by some other people, but to be out there going all-in trying to determine how the future’s supposed to be on their own terms. To me it’s vitally important that you see as many different kinds of representations of black people as often as it’s possible for them to be seen so that it becomes impossible to develop these assumptions that black people don’t do this, they don’t do that, they aren’t here and they aren’t there. I think it’s a critical mass of representation of black figures matters not on the level that people are trying to figure out how they feel about it, but simply at the level that they see it.”
'Garden of Delights' will be on view at the Contemporary Art Museum until July 7.