Kerry James Marshall

Born before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, in Birmingham, Alabama, and witness to the Watts riots in 1965, Marshall has long been an inspired and imaginative chronicler of the African American experience. Couching his visual language in terms of ironic ambiguity as well as romantic beauty, he makes paintings that undermine our need for clear-cut stereotypes and simple solutions. His outsized tableaux concoct a spell - equal parts magical and tragic - from a complex recipe based on such diverse sources as traditional fairy tales, African and Haitian parables, the symbolic imagery of Renaissance painting and the iconography of contemporary American media, from Harlequin romances to Hollywood blockbusters. Complicating his sumptuous, theatrical recountings, however, are social and political allusions that ground his allegories in the plain-spoken, often painfully frank, terms of the real world.

As Marshall commented in 1994, “I stylize my figures purely for effect, to be troublesome, to be extreme, to try to explore the cultural stereotypes that polarize us in our everyday interactions. Nothing is simple black or white. Both of these are extreme positions, and I want to take a position against the rhetorical stances people use to define themselves. This is a part of the theatrical spectacle of narrative picture making. I want a slow read; I want people to be intrigued enough by the arrangements to spend the time to unravel the narratives.”

Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and received a BFA in 1978 and an honorary Ph.D. from Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles, California. Marshall studied with acclaimed social realist painter Charles White and participated in the residency program at the Studio Museum in Harlem from 1985-1986.

The gallery guide features the essay “Telling Stories” by Terrie Sultan, curator of contemporary art, The Corcoran Gallery of Art (essay courtesy of Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art).