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Kerry James Marshall and the American Dream

Chicago — In Kerry James Marshall’s 1994 painting Great America, the centerpiece of an exhibit of the artist’s work opening tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, four black figures are piled into a small boat that’s part of an amusement-park ride. The figures are dark, almost silhouettes, and strangely unaffected by the light falling on the water around them, as if they’re from some other picture altogether.

On closer inspection, in fact, the figures are not smiling. They don’t seem to be having the least bit of fun. Nor is this body of water upon which they sail some fun-house lagoon; there are suggestions of turbulence and depth, and mountains in the distance. This is an ocean, it dawns on us, the Atlantic Ocean. And if the people in the boat are contemporary Americans at leisure, they are also their ancestors embarked on the middle passage, the tragic voyage that brought them here from Africa in shackles.

“The painting is about both the transatlantic slave trade and what it means for present-day black people to be Americans,” says Marshall, 57, in his sprawling studio on the South Side of Chicago. “In a lot of my work, those things overlap.”

Indeed they do. In Great America and about 30 other paintings and drawings in the National Gallery’s “In the Tower” series entry — Marshall’s first solo exhibit in Washington — the artist evokes the complete journey of African Americans, from those first ships as human cargo to more recent crossings from poverty to relative affluence (though the latter often feel less triumphant than they might). And from beginning to end, the show floats on images of water, from the treacherous sea to riverside baptisms to suburban backyard swimming pools and back again.

“We move from maritime to suburban imagery, tracing the whole narrative of the middle passage to the African American entrance in middle-class prosperity — the American Dream, if you will,” says National Gallery curator James Meyer, who organized the exhibit around Great America — which the museum acquired in 2011 — and its theme of water. “The question of the show is: What is the American Dream for the descendants of slaves? How is it different from those whose families immigrated by choice?”

The images are also laden with symbols of African cultural and religious practices that the slaves brought with them and maintained, sometimes disguised by or blended with the Christianity that they adopted in the New World, voluntarily or not. There are Yoruba deities such as Yemaja, maternal goddess of the open sea, who watched over the sojourners of the middle passage, and Oshun, goddess of erotic love, who morphed into a mermaid in Haiti and Brazil. There are Vodun (also known as voodoo) effigies and Hoodoo folk magic along with mystical Catholicism and charismatic Protestantism — the African soul adapting and transforming itself into African American soul, restless and resilient, wading in the water.

“The very idea of the baptism is being born again, dying in the water and rising as some new thing,” Marshall says, surrounded by paintbrushes and vast canvases in various states of completion. “But that was a difficult thing for Africans to negotiate, because Christianity didn’t always come as a means of salvation for them. There was a belief at the time that Africans didn’t have a soul, and because of that, they were perfect for enslavement. Later on, people who didn’t convert were often killed, so conversion to Christianity was a way of surviving. In the process, you had to figure out a way to embed your own religious practices into Christian practices, which is why you have African deities masquerading as Christian.”

It was the church — or, rather, churches — that first sparked Marshall’s visual imagination. Growing up in Ensley, a mostly poor, virtually all-black neighborhood of Birmingham, Ala., Marshall attended the local Baptist church, where the plainness of the surroundings contrasted sharply with the flamboyant style of the worship, with its swaying bodies, hands raised skyward in praise, dancing choirs and singsong preaching.

In second grade, Kerry James was introduced to an even greater contrast at the chapel of his Catholic elementary school, where Mass was a somber ritual conducted amid a dazzling fantasia of stained glass and flickering candles, carved wood and vaulted ceilings, white-robed choirboys and clouds of incense.

“The chapel was otherworldly - spectacular, to say the least — and the extreme contrast with the unadorned quality of the Baptist church had a powerful effect on my perception of things,” Marshall recalls. “There was the spectacle of place and the spectacle of the body, and it’s that very thing that I’m always trying to juggle in my painting — the balance between intensity and theatricality, between the figure and the space it occupies. The figure is completely independent of what the light in the picture is doing, because the figure has a separate reality. If you have a figure that is effectively black, it doesn’t get blacker when it goes into shadow, because it’s already as black as it can get. And so the figure is inside and outside at the same time. But the ground in the space around the figure has to be activated in an interesting and dynamic way, too. They have to harmonize and vibrate with each other.”

It was during kindergarten at the Catholic church that the budding artist met his first muse, a young teacher named Mary Hill, who kept a scrapbook in which she’d pasted Valentine and holiday cards and photos and illustrations clipped from magazines. “That was the thing that really changed me, made me want to be an artist,” he says. “The images in the scrapbook looked like somebody had made them, and I wanted to be able to make them, too.”

When Marshall was 7 years old, his father, a dishwasher and janitor at the local Veterans Administration hospital, moved the family to Los Angeles, where they settled in the neighborhood of Watts. There, in fourth grade, Marshall met his second muse, another teacher who, while working on holiday decorations in the school corridors, taught him how to paint flowers — she was partial to pansies and daisies — by combining two different colors of paint on a single brush, resulting in a stroke that produced beautiful blended hues. “She was my first art teacher,” he says with a smile. “I still use some of her techniques today.”

Marshall has come a long way, of course, since painting those flowers in fourth grade. While his content and themes are recognizable as uniquely his, his style is consciously eclectic. From piece to piece, he re-creates and reinterprets various chapters of the history of Western art from the Renaissance to the present, including 18th-century rococo complete with Arcadian pastoral scenes, 19th-century romanticism and impressionism, 20th-century expressionism, abstraction, pop and conceptual art.

“One thing that matters deeply to Kerry — I wouldn’t say above all else, but still — is the technique of painting, the notion of mastery,” says Dieter Roelstraete, senior curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, who is working with Marshall on an exhibit of new paintings in Antwerp, Belgium, this fall. “It’s not valid to speak of his work in terms of borrowing or pastiche — he’s not a mixologist — but it’s true that his project is an interrogation of 500 years of Western visual culture. He questions and critiques that canon, but he does it from within, in a way. And before he questions something, he must conquer it first, make it his own.”

Armed with his arsenal of techniques, Marshall has set about creating a body of work that explores African American history from the slave ships to the present, arriving at contemporary scenes of black middle-class life that, while often full of images of leisure and romance, is still haunted by ambivalence and ambiguity, an inability to entirely accept material success as permanent or even lastingly worthwhile.

“It’s an inability that’s endemic to the black cultural body in the United States and other areas of the Western Hemisphere,” he says. “Everything is contingent in one way or another, and it speaks to a belief that circulates among a lot of black people — I certainly have it — that everything, including pleasure and acceptance, is conditional, all the time. Because black people had to negotiate their freedom — negotiate their humanity, even — it’s never assumed that anything that you experience or see on the surface is what it appears to be.”

And because the black population is a minority population in the United States — and because by definition “minority” means “vulnerable,” as he puts it — “You operate in an arena in which you are neither the author nor determiner of your fate.”

Except, of course, that Kerry James Marshall has, by and large, determined his own.

“He’s a remarkable artist with a broad pictorial imagination,” Meyer says. “He’s able to come up with powerful images to confront American history and the position of African Americans within that history. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”