Kerry James Marshall is kind of an unassuming guy. In fact, when I first saw him, I wasn’t sure I was facing THE artist, Kerry James Marshall. On the phone, I was so impressed with his articulation and his warmth. I guess I was expecting someone in a cardigan and slacks. I thought, shouldn’t you be in a suit? Where I expected formality, I found a quiet and powerful thinker who is eager to share his views with you (at great length) and make you comfortable in the conversation, even when the topic can be anything but comfortable. I found a guy in jeans, a button-down and a ball cap with an easy demeanor and a ready laugh. I could tell as I listened in on his presentation to the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council that it was going to be a great evening.
Paired with poet and scholar, Elizabeth Alexander, the Contemporary Art in Conversation series at the Walker continued on October 13 as part of Target Free Thursday Nights. The event advantage was all mine because not only are Alexander and Marshall artists aware of, and fans of, each others’ work, they are also close friends, thus promising some great conversation.
Alexander opened the evening with a reading from her latest volume of poetry, American Sublime. She uses a masterful mix of formal elements with words and phrases that she identified as “ black vernacular.” I’ve never studied poetry so I have nothing helpful to say for you poetry-loving folks, but I was impressed with what I heard, and many of the themes that appeared in her work were echoed as Marshall took the stage to present a look at his own work.
Marshall came armed with 70+ slides, and the more he said he needed to move fast through them, the longer he seemed to linger over individual works and let his thoughts develop along some very interesting lines. Marshall is such a fascinating speaker and I loved hearing about the development of his various works. By far a favorite of mine was the triptych Heirlooms and Accessories, a work that starts with the photograph of a lynching and fades the entire image but for the face of one of the white audience members. Around this image is a locket/pendant with chain that frames the face. At first glance you just see the necklace and this face, but as you study it more, the very grim scene of the lynching becomes clearer. Marshall talked about the idea of heirlooms: items and legacies we pass down through generations. It’s a very striking piece.
As the conversation got under way, it was clear that you had to have your head in the game just to keep up. Being already acquainted, Alexander and Marshall immediately jumped into a dense and fascinating conversation about the “ black aesthetic” and “ black creativity,” and also this idea of the “ post-, post-, post-black artist,” which I understood to be the question of when a black artist can effectively work without first establishing their work as a reclamation and reaffirmation of black artists from the past. No fluffy stuff here! Lucky for you, the event was webcast and you can check it out here. As if I could cram all the good stuff in this one post.