Saturday, May 14, 2011

POST: Kerry James Marshall

Questions & Artists: Kerry James Marshall
Originally posted: May 11, 2010, 5:42 PM by 

In July 2008, Vogue Italia’s all-black models issue broke silence around fashion-industry racism — and a few sales records, too. But acclaimed American artist Kerry James Marshall knows that fashion isn’t the only realm where more black models are needed. Raised in the civil-rights hotspots of Birmingham, Ala., and Watts, Calif., Marshall’s beautifully composed paintings feature black people only. The artist spoke with Leah Sandals about race, rows and representation before the opening of his first Canadian solo show (co-curated by art star Jeff Wall) which ran May 8, 2010 to January 3, 2011 at the Vancouver Art Gallery

At the age of 14, you vowed never to paint a white person. Why?
That statement came from thinking about art history. When you read art books and go to museums, almost all the people you see in paintings are white. When you take classes at art schools, almost all the models — at least that we had — were white. What you do with that experience is take for granted that white-figure representation is what constitutes art. The idea of the black figure in pictures is not something that people have as part of their common experience.
So when I first started making pictures, that was what I did, too — I made compositions with white figures, because “that’s what art looked like.” Since then, I became interested in what people expect to see when they go to a museum. That’s why I decided I would always paint black figures — to me, that has the greatest transformative effect on people’s expectations of art.
When it becomes common to see black figures in art, there won’t be a need to make that statement. But until then, you have to hold to a conscious effort to introduce something different into people’s art-going experiences. 
Given that art-world bias, how do you account for your own success as a black artist?
Well, I’m just one person! I dare say I wonder how many other black artists — other than Stan Douglas — have had a solo show in Vancouver. It doesn’t automatically spring to mind that if you think of an artist, you think of a black person. And that seriously affects how many black people think they can become artists, too.
How did you make the decision to be an artist, then?
I didn’t know any better! I just wanted to make pictures. When I was in kindergarten my teacher had a scrapbook of stuff she clipped out of magazines. That’s what made me want to be an artist, seeing the variety of those pictures. To a kid, a lot of that stuff looked magical.
Early on, I was also excited about how things were made. When I was a kid, there was a TV program called John Gnagy’s Learn to Draw. He would tell you exactly how to take circles and squares and make them into rockets and books. That had a profound effect on me, the idea that you could figure out how things were done, and get better at it.

[In early 2010], the director of the National Gallery of Canada was asked why there aren’t more artists of colour in the gallery’s collection. He said it was because the gallery chooses works on the basis of excellence, not ethnicity. What’s your response to those kinds of arguments?

To me, that statement is a conditioned response to being part of a dominant culture. In that structure, someone may only see good in things that are a reflection of their own dominance. I go to museums all the time, everywhere in the world. And I can say there’s a lot in museums that is not good. The art isn’t always in there because it’s good; often it’s because it’s familiar. Or because there’s some relationship the museum is trying to cultivate with a donor. Or because people will pay a lot for that art in the marketplace. There’s a lot of reasons why this idea of meritocracy is false.

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