In this series of talks we invite artists and art historians to discuss the history, aesthetics, and contemporary state of the practice of painting. In the second of three discussions, Tony Lewis and Jacqueline Stewart discuss visibility/invisibility and presence/absence in Lewis's practice, in the work of Kerry James Marshall, and in the medium at large.
Jacqueline Stewart: All right, hi there.
Tony Lewis: Hey guys, what's up?
JS: Good afternoon.
TL: Thanks for coming. I have to apologize really quickly. I've been under the weather, but I hope you can hear me. I hope this helps. If you can't hear me, just tell me to speak up and I'll try and speak up.
JS: We have some guiding ideas that we're thinking about talking about today and that we're actually assigned to talk about today around invisibility and visibility, but we actually hope we can expand on those concepts because a lot of the dialogue about the show and even in the labeling of the show focuses on . . . Can you guys hear me? Okay, great . . . Focuses on that tension between visibility and invisibility and questions of race and blackness in particular. We thought we might actually start in this direction, look at a few paintings and talk about this.
TL: I want to take you guys to the first painting, not the first painting but the first painting I saw Kerry James Marshall was not in this show. We're going to be quiet because we're going to try and walk around this group.
JS: She told us . . .
TL: The painting over there?
JS: All right, let's move this way. Thank you.
TL: It's this one.
JS: Oh yeah.
TL: It's this style, but this is not the painting. The painting I'm talking about is – well, I'll wait until everybody gets here, but it was –
Yeah, this is the painting I was talking about. This is also not the painting I was talking about. This is the closest to the painting I was talking about. The first time I saw Kerry James Marshall was in the modern wing of the Art Institute years ago, walking through. I did not expect to see his work. I think it was Gerhard Richter over here and some [James] Rosenquist or something, some other stuff. I turned the corner, I see a painting painted this style, and there was three things I noticed initially. The first one was the black figures, like charcoal-black figures because visually this painting, you can see they stand out quite a bit. After that, I noticed how big and ridiculous the signature is here. Right here. There's actually a much better example of it over here. That beautiful K, that beautiful J, that beautiful M. Then the third thing I noticed is that it's a really great painting. I feel like those three things happening at the same time felt like a great way for me to understand where this work is coming from; where its foundation is for me.
To be honest, I'm not a painter and I don't think—unless you're a closet painter—I don't you're a painter. We're not painters here, but I think we have – I grew up thinking in terms of painting so there are things about it that I can hold on to and grapple with, work within. Those three things is where Kerry James Marshall first started to rattle my brain. Primarily because those are really noticeable things. It's pretty intense: that signature, how dark those figures are, and also just how beautifully painted this is. Those are things that are very, very intentional to me. They are to be seen. You don't look over those things. That signature, that name is not something you can look over, and I think that stuck with me I guess in terms of just a personal anecdote. Just want to start there.
JS: No, I think it's a really generative one. If I could just riff on what you said from my own perspective as a film scholar. The blackness of the figures is incredibly striking to my mind because of the complicated ways in which artists have tried and not tried to render blackness in film, certainly, but also in painting and photography. There are certain limits to the medium and photographic media. Kodak just doesn't represent a range of black skin tones very well. Painters have debated this or thought about it, not thought about it. He's thought about it and he's addressed this question of how to represent black skin in a way that is profoundly political and consistent.
TL: Yeah, this is so deeply rooted in paint and material in a way that's – we talked about this before, but this is painting show. This is a huge celebration of painting. I feel that pretty strongly, which makes me think about material, but not just material, that's way rooted. It makes me think about systematic, historically contained material, which is to say the way the painting is put together. The tradition of painting, the way that it's performed around us is real special. I think when it comes to articulating and representing blackness, I think it has everything to do with paint, everything to do with surface, everything to do with his relationship to these materials.
JS: Absolutely, yeah. Then what you were saying about beauty also, beauty and technique and the way that those are intertwined in this work, the way that they serve each other. All of this work, not just this particular painting. On the one hand, clearly there is a way in which is he writing against a history of denying beauty to black subjects, or recognizing the beauty in black subjects, but the way he combines both portraiture and landscape in his rendering of beauty. You see it here, even if in really simple, simple terms.
TL: It's unbelievable looking at that, thinking of landscape. That painting directly behind you. It's hard to really consider blackness as a subject matter. It's hard to consider. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but it really does conflict with the beauty of that sun and that water. I guess that's what I mean when I say that it's a show about painting, just because I feel like – I mentioned earlier – he does use blackness as a place to begin. I think and I feel like it's definitely a way to see himself within. We all know, based on how he talks about the work, fitting himself or fitting black images into the history of painting – we know all that, but I think it's pretty amazing to think of it from the other side to say, "Well, this is just a guy who needs to find a legit way to enter painting." It's a passion for painting that's legitimized by the fact that there's an opportunity that he can create to put himself in these places, literally put himself in that place. Not just in the square, but in that literal place.
That's interesting for me. That makes it a little more personal, which is interesting, because as personal as it is and maybe as vulnerable as that sounds – we were also just talking about how this – what was I just saying? To say this is –
JS: How this has an impact on you as an artist in terms of the burden that Kerry James Marshall has taken on to speak all of these volumes.
TL: This is really a big, brazen painter show. His chest is out. He's got everything showing. This is a celebration of his work, of what he does. I find it interesting being able to see the work from a particularly vulnerable standpoint, but then also understanding that this stuff, you can't get much bigger than this. This is an incredible painting show and there's no stopping it. It's intense.
In terms of how it reflects on me – it's great that this is happening. I'm happy that I can walk through this room because it takes the burden off me to have to deal with painting it this way. It's like, "Oh, this is fantastic." It's already been done. It's been done extremely well and I'm not really worried about painting. Seeing this show allows me to go to my studio and make really small paintings in between really big drawings.
JS: This is a huge thing that you're saying. It makes me think about, and we should walk over there, some of the ways in which he renders these figures of black revolutionary history. They did these things, these martyrs. These revolutionaries did these things so that we could do different things, smaller things, human things. There's that part of it, which I hope we can get back to, but can we talk about the signatures again because I think that relates to what you're saying about the monumentalness of this show and the way that this authorship?
The other film studies-ish thing that I think about is the auteur, where is the author? He's here. This is like Hitchcock level.
TL: He's standing right behind you.
JS: Stepping into, making the cameo, but people don't say that very much about his work.
TL: Yeah. It's funny. Lots of artists do this. Lots of painters do this for sure, but one of the other painters I was thinking about, one my favorite painters is a guy named Stuart Davis. Stuart Davis, I don't know how would you describe him? He's like an American modernist, pretty fantastic painter, coming from Ashcan School, early 20th century, late 19th century, and then he got into some really crazy American modernist color shapes, really amazing paintings. He was one of the first painters when I first saw his name, smacked into the composition, so bold and bright, so clear. It just said Stuart Davis in a place where it was all orange or all white. I was like, "Stuart, what are you doing? You're ruining the composition." Then I'm like, "Oh, no he's not." He like, "No, no, no, no. This is me. This is – mark my name." You can't distinguish it from the brushstroke and I felt that was pretty fantastic.
In Stuart Davis, if you look at some of his later work, he has a series of paintings that literally say the word champion and that's not an accident. It's big, it's brazen, and it's a thing that painters do. I'm sorry if there's a painter – artists do this, but it's something that definitely began in painting, having this bravado or confidence or self-confidence.
JS: You're saying there's a hierarchy of media?
TL: No. I'm saying painters think there are. I'm saying that Kerry James Marshall, this is a perfect example of, I think, how he performs incredibly as a painter, not just as a maker but I think that signature is completely linked in to the way these things are supposed to be understood in the same way that Stuart Davis put his name out there and the same way he put the word bold champion on there. The name of this show is Mastry, there's something about that that I really, really enjoy because it's just so powerful. There's no denying it. It's not like good paintings; it's mastery.
JS: It's mastery, yeah. Did you have a thought?
Audience: I was wondering if the two of you could say something about the color and contrast between this? This I was looking at as black and white. I thought it was more of a sketch than a painting. I understand it's paint. Then this is pink came and threw itself at this canvas. Do you have some thoughts about how he is using color and not since we're talking strictly in black and white and then in living color and then something so light like a pink?
JS: That's a great question. Yeah, and there's color in that one like the hearts in this one. There's a really interesting way that I think the blackness defines everything else that happens in the paintings. At least, that's the way that I see it. This one is really unusual with all the glitter involved and the beauty shop one that maybe we can take a look at, too, also involves the surface of it and the shininess of it is adding a lot to it. But I don't know, there's something that is more photographic to me about the black-and-white stuff that he does.
TL: Yeah. Personally, I feel like it has a lot to do with studio experimentation, because if you look at this painting there's a lot of things that I feel, looking back, I can feel him in the studio working on this and being like, "Oh, this is ridiculous." Do you know what I'm saying? I can also see him coming over here thinking, "This just needs just a few pink hearts." I feel like the distinction between a Saturday or a Wednesday, in terms of what kind of day you had and what kind of energy you want to put on the surface, obviously what kind of image you want to build up, obviously the thickness. You can't separate the color from the volume in this painting. You can't separate the color from the glitter. You can't separate it from the messiness of that green and that pink.
I feel like that sort of energy is something that – it's color, but it's material and I see that as more of just experimentation and being okay with having this really specifically rendered – really beautifully rendered body and tree and then just being able to say, "You know what? I'm going to smack on this bright orange or smack on these red hearts in such a way." It's playful, but it's also about as gaudy as he can get in the studio. You know what I mean?
I feel like the color for me, I tend to think of it in terms of just almost minuscule studio, micro-decisions in the studio. That's how I'm thinking about it, but then I'm not a painter so I can't talk about color. Do you want to move around?
*JS: * Yeah, let's move around. Maybe we can go into this gallery here because it's 7 am Sunday.
TL: Oh man, this is the second painting I saw. This is when I realized, "Oh sheesh, he's just trying to do everything." He's trying to do everything and he's succeeding.
*JS: * Now, I don't know if we have any – We may need to stand closer to that.
TL: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
JS: Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello. Is that, yeah. Okay. Yes.
TL: Yeah. It's just a drop cloth.
JS: Those grommets are really fantastic and this solar flare thing that's bringing this photographic reference to what's happening in the painting. I love this, this is my favorite one, so I'm selfishly standing here in front of this one.
TL: I'm going to stand over there.
JS: Yeah, go ahead. To reframe it. Having grown up on the South Side of Chicago, just this kind of landscape is so familiar to me and yet, the way that he places these figures across the bottom of the painting. There's this really interesting way in which he de-romanticizes his black subjects that I really appreciate. It's not just about representing the every day—which he does really beautifully—but it's also about placing these figures and rendering them in a way that this guy could be any number of guys on the south side of Chicago. To me, that's what amplifies this beyond questions about visibility, invisibility. In fact, there's a kind of hypervisibility to blackness in his work. That's what I really read in this.
TL: Yeah, absolutely. Question?
Audience: Do you know if he, he probably worked from a photograph but this is an assumption?
JS: I don't know if he worked from a photograph. Did he work from a photograph?
TL: Multiple photographs. Thanks, Greg.
JS: You can breathe [inaudible]. Yes, please.
Audience: I was just wondering specifically about this piece and thinking about landscapes of blackness. I just wondered if you could talk a little bit more about blackness as a concept beyond the rendering of the skin tone, or individuals, and thinking more about a landscape which might be cultural, which might be urban, which might be economic or political? Maybe you could reflect on how he does that in his work beyond the individual figures?
JS: That's a great question. Yeah, yeah.
TL: Definitely. That's kind of what I was thinking about when I was talking about that painting over there with that ocean view. It's weird for me to think about blackness as a thing to celebrate on a beach like that because it's almost like that's what they're doing there. Talk about placement, talk about locations in terms of not just formally how the painting looks, but also in terms of, well, based on the context of the show, based on the painting that you’re probably usually surrounded by, you can assume those are two black people hanging out on the beach somewhere just enjoying a vacation. Just getting my head to a place where that's a normal thing or just a thing that's acceptable to consider in this space of a painting is where my mind immediately goes to. Then again, talking about this work, talking about landscape, talking about geography and space, I think it goes somewhere else entirely. It goes to a much more pointed place. This is home. This is pretty autobiographical.
In a way, that seems more autobiographical than that beach scene, but maybe it shouldn't be. Maybe it is. I don't know what I'm getting at. Does that make sense?
JS: Yeah, yeah. What you're saying about what this might be doing in terms of thinking about the spacialization of blackness, that's what I love about this painting. All the sky that's in it. So on the one hand, if it were framed differently, like less sky, then what you would have is a different kind of rendering of the way that black subjects are entrapped by a certain kind of ghetto landscape. The liquor store being the most prominent thing here and the beauty shop. You could have Chicken Shack next to that, whatever. Here, he has this gazed upward and this flare effect also does something to make the sky even bigger and some sense of lightness that totally transforms, I think, the way that we would understand what mental space these people live in, not just the physical space that they live in. Then he does this thing where he's got music emanating from that building over there, notes and song lyrics, which I think is another super interesting dimension of his work overall. Especially thinking about this question visibility/invisibility because he makes music visible in a lot of this work.
TL: It's funny because that's the only – talk about trying to make music visible. These notes, this is totally his space to do all of that. Literally the best way he can make you hear music in your mind is by showing you notes.
JS: Yes, and the words.
TL: Showing you words.
JS: I think, "Oh, he was listening to that while he was painting." Maybe, maybe not, but even the angles, it's echoing the way that the birds are flying. There is this upward sweep here that – it's celebratory at the same time that you can see all of the signs of danger or crisis or the typical narratives about black urban life.
JS: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
TL: The first thing . . . This is the second painting. I know I was talking about the first painting I saw of Kerry James Marshall. This is the second painting I remember seeing. I believe it was in this museum a few – years ago, four, five, six years ago. This was here and I remember the same feeling that I walked in seeing it – walked in having now is the same feeling I had back then when I was just thinking, "This is too much. There's so much going on." “There is all of this sky and what are these notes doing coming out of the building? Who is this guy? What's up with this yellow?” There's so much going on that it's really overwhelming and then I see Rothschilds and then I go, "Oh, I know that."
JS: Yeah, right.
TL: It's so bold and big in the center, in the center of the painting. It's totally the subject matter, whether he wants it to be or not. But it just takes me to a place of understanding that this is, because there's so many things going on and these little tiny figures that give you just a sprinkle of what I think some of the other work shouts out, which is to say strong, bold, black, happy, self-indulgent or self-confident figure. This is something else entirely and it's something that I think this painting in particular does really well. It talks about photography way more than it talks about any of these other things and it makes me excited to think that all these things can happen at once, which is what's great about paintings.
Just going back to that idea of how bold he can be to do this. Just put it on his shoulders, all of this. Not just the figure, but also painting. Not just the black body, not just the black body in painting, I'm talking about painting on his back and say, "Hey, I'll do this for this thing." I don't know if that makes sense to anybody, but it's just one of those things that gets me excited. That's why I consider this to be a huge celebration, this show.
JS: Sure. Can we talk about the one over here because I think it expands upon some stuff, this one here? We're flanking again like we did before.
TL: Oh my gosh . . .
JS: Yeah, you'll love it. I think this one, it picks up on some things we've already been talking about with regard to the formal material experimentation and then this question of burden because he's an historian. I'm saying he's a scholar. There's so many rich ways in which he is layering references to various histories: American histories, global black histories in this work. And the way that he filters those through particular spaces, especially domestic spaces, is really interesting to me. His careful detail to these objects and interior, domestic environments. The kinds of things that he does with traditions of still life. Then this play with text, which is something I really hope you'll talk about a bit because so much of your work involves text.
TL: Yeah. I can't even, yes, but I just can't get over how ridiculous and weird this painting is. Look at the eyes of the person in the middle. Those are creepy eyes. Those are really creepy eyes and just the way that this whole scene is built up. The way it's framed. It's really weird and it's very, very implicating. It's hard for me to – . The great thing about the way that language works, or I should say the representation of letters, words, the great way about how they work here is that you don't think of them as things to be dealt with by themselves. It doesn't make me think about language. It makes me think about JFK, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King and it makes me think about these folks. It makes me think about history in a real strong, implicating way. Man, I haven't read enough about any of these people to be able to look at the painting. It's that initial feeling of oh, it's okay.
Language, the way that I've come to language has been through drawing and that is based in a systematic or diagrammatic thing. It's about writing and the link that has to drawing specifically, but that's a very different conversation about how language functions here. It's much more of a object and less of a material, if that makes sense. This thing, because it's part of an object that exists. This is banner or this is, I don't know what you would call this. Does anybody know what that's called, other than a banner? That's a banner, right? Yeah.
This is a banner before its language to me. That has everything to do with the glitter it's surrounded by. Everything to do with the faces that I recognize. Also, what the language says, this is not meant to mince words. I think it's definitely very clear and very a part of a larger mirrored image. Do you know what I'm saying? This is not weird. We know what this is. This is a serious sign. Those wings and the eyes of that figure is weird. In relationship to this, it puts you in a place where, at least it puts me in a place I should say, I shouldn’t say any of you. It puts me in a place where I just feel like I'm a little implicated. Like you said before, this domestic scene, I should not be seeing. You know what I'm saying? It's like, "Whoa, what are you doing in my house? I'm in the middle of doing something on this marble table with these pretty ridiculous golden lion legs."
JS: Well, the first time I saw this, I thought this was in a funeral home. It's just the reference to death all around, but even the decor of it is almost like the foyer for a South Side funeral home. The Leak Funeral Home, Griffin kind of looked like that. Those were my cousins so I can talk about them. As you're saying, this way in which the painting implicates us to know more about these figures, I think it's a really striking thing and so much of his work does that where there are these layered histories of slave rebellion and legislative actions and so forth that you're called upon to know more about it, to understand through the way in which these figures of the past are haunting these ghostly present-ish figures. They seem to be central figures of the paintings. I appreciate what you're saying about the way that the text is not just something to be read here. That it's doing something else formally, yeah, emotionally.
What else should we look at?
TL: I don't know. Let's walk to the other room because there's something I was thinking about, but I want to get my thought in my head together first. By the time we get there, I'll have half of a thought.
TL: There's this hilarious sketch by Key and Peele. Do you know Key and Peele, the television show? You ever seen that episode where they do Negrotown?
TL: Oh man, it's so good. [laughs] It’s pretty great. There's a guy who gets arrested. He gets stopped by the police, he gets arrested and there's a bum ten feet away. There's a black bum ten feet away who comes up, knocks out the police officer, and grabs the guy who's arrested and takes him into the dark little area and then it's Shirt and Shines. It's a place that looks exactly like this and it's called Negrotown. It's basically, I was just telling [inaudible] a version of it. Anyways, it's really happy. Everybody's smiling and there's this ridiculous song about what it means to be a negro. They've got this whole vibe. It's a [inaudible] It's nuts to see this. I guess I should say that.
JS: You should.
TL: Does anybody watch Key and Peele?
Audience: I have, yeah.
TL: You guys watch Key and Peele? You guys, this is very specific. A lot of people won't know what I'm talking about, but there's this episode of Key and Peele where they go to Negrotown. You guys know what I'm talking about? Oh man. For those of you who know what I'm talking about, you understand why I'm bringing it up. For those of you who don't, just YouTube “Negro Town” and “Key and Peele.” It's a pretty crazy – but the first thing I noticed when I walked in here was how sublime all of these paintings are, how beautiful they are, how incredibly built up they are, but also how intensely scary they are and how sad they are. The color takes you to one place and then the content takes you somewhere else in a pretty strong way. It shows you – it's really great to have this one here to say that, which brings me back to why I brought up Negrotown because it’s basically – I'm going to give you a brief synopsis of this episode.
There's this guy on the street late at night, this black guy, who gets stopped by the police. He's hassled by the police. He gets arrested by the police. And there's a bum about 15 feet on the floor, underneath some newspaper, just staring at the whole scene. If I remember correctly, either the guy gets knocked out or the bum comes up, knocks out the guy or knocks out the policemen, one of the two. Either way, it ends up where the bum takes this man into a little corner down the alley, underneath this thing, dark space, and on the other side it's Negrotown. It's basically this, which is to say it's a beautiful, wonderful scene with kids and bright colors. Only it's an oasis for black people. You guys know what I'm talking about? Those who know the episode.
The reason why I'm bringing it up is that's a hilarious episode because it's extremely – it's meant to be funny, but if you look at the episode as a black person you're also like, "This would be kind of nice. It would be great to not have to deal with certain things. This would be great." Then you think about the visual, I think, representation of this sunset and how it's totally “happyville” and how it becomes its own oasis. It becomes its own place of community, I should say, while having housing authority. Whatever that says, I can't read. While having a clear reference to housing authority and what that means in relationship to a place like this.
That's something I was thinking about as I was walking in this room. I don't know.
JS: Yeah. Well, you were talking about how the previous painting we looked at was weird and, to me, creepy is the word that comes to mind, but these are even creepier. The expressions on the figures' faces. Are they happy to be in “our town”? It's really –
TL: It's complacent at best.
JS: There's this one in particular has this really interesting, almost Douglas Sirk–like quality of – well the way it uses red is one example of that because Imitation of Life uses a red fire plug in real interesting ways. To think about how it is that this dream of a certain kind of middle class domestic landscape just shrouds all of these other deeply troubling kinds of economic and interpersonal relationships. Even looking at this as some kind of celebration of black family is really complicated, I think. The way that the mother is – it’s ambiguous as to what her message is to them there and the way that they're not listening to her. Then this windowlessness of these houses over here, it's not our town. It's a really dark and scary place.
This thing that he's doing here, too, of obscuring with the almost like somebody, it's not exactly graffiti, but it's more destructive marring of the landscape that you get in all of these.
TL: There's some angry brushstrokes on these paintings. There's some moments where I feel like, I feel like there was a moment when he was like “I'm going to make this a pretty painting. I'm going to make this like the other one in there with the pink hearts.” Again, going to back the way that a lot of these images are built in relationship to micro-decisions in the studio. What is mean to – This is probably one of the things that gets me so excited because it's a thing that points directly to surface and, I hate to use the word but, process in the studio so directly. This has no business along with a lot of these other things. It looks like it's a piece of paper that was just glued to the surface. Same thing with this and this and this and this. This is collage, but this is – the way that collage tends to work for most people is that it helps them learn how to build images, it helps them learn how to, in this case, frame a particular scene.
But what this does in terms of having these really, really makeshift pencil marks and really horribly cut pieces of paper is that it, for me, it echoes a lot, maybe a lot of the indecision, or a lot of the back and forth in these spaces or in this space down here, which is to say it's great. It's very interesting to be in a head space where you're in the studio, you're thinking about it in your mind what I'm referring to as a Negrotown, but you're also thinking about a housing authority, but you're also thinking about how this paper can frame a lot of those things and how these paintbrushes, how they're going to affect this larger understanding of our town. I feel like, as an artist, that's one of these spaces that I'm most interested in. Where in his mind he gets to a place where it's okay to do these things, when he found out this is a thing that's complete, this is a thing that's done, and how much struggle to get there just formally. Just physically making the thing, but then conceptually in your head being okay with making a simple decision like this and seeing this blue go down on top of something. It's just worked over. Worked over and over and over and over.
JS: It’s really helpful to hear you describe it in that way. Just to think about his practice because what that also evokes for me and more now that you described it that way is so that it's not just about a thing that was made for, let's say, middle class white people and then black people moved it and it wasn't kept up as well, which we know is the narrative of how these things work. Then there's also a way in which the efforts to try to kind of do upkeep, to keep the streets paved or something or to keep the buildings painted, it's just not done well or it's a variety of –
TL: Just put some duct tape on it.
JS: Yeah, it has that effect of like, we're just going to do some glue and staples and make that okay for you and that's the landscape, those are qualities of the landscape that so many poor black people live in and middle class black people live in. To think about how that thing gets incorporated into the way that he would be collecting and playing with materials in the studio is great.
TL: One of the things I love most, especially maybe in this painting, a lot of these paintings in this particular gallery, is there's a lot of makeshift quality to it. That little, teeny collage aspect. For me, makeshift is a thing that I really attribute to and value within the world of drawing because I think of drawing as this thing that is very much about expediency. The primal mark-making activity. It's the first thing to you tend to do when you're working out an idea. You tend to draw something out before you get to a place where these things are made or these types of surfaces are made, but what I love about these is that I can start to see a lot of that, I guess, touch and lot of the mistakes. A lot of the problem solving that I see in drawing, I can see in these paintings in particular. There's a lot of marks that I would –
If Kerry James Marshall walked in here and said, "Oh yeah, all this stuff is on purpose from the second I did it," I would not believe him. I would be like, "Yo, you did not mean to do that. That's just there and you just had to deal with it and that's you working out a thing." I think I really enjoy being able to see that in paintings. I really, really enjoy being able to see this moment in paintings where there can be a little bit that's not about, aside from the size, it's not about building a grand, massive thing. It's about something that's potentially slightly vulnerable, which I think could potentially point back to the subject matter, point back to, I guess, the fragility of the subject matter.
JS: That's super interesting. If you have the audacity . . . oh!
TL: Oh, sorry.
JS: Sorry. Maybe we should move on.
JS: He was talking about vulnerability here.
Audience: Here's another observation about this painting. The yellow ribbons on the trees and the yellow ribbons that the birds are bringing down, to me it almost represents loss from war, drugs, crime, police brutality and they're kind of pretty, but then you go, "There's a meaning that's a lot deeper than that from that," and it says loss to me.
JS: Yeah, yeah. No, I think you're on to something with that.
TL: I think so. They're really conflicted. They're really beautiful, but they're also very ugly.
JS: Beautiful ugly, yes.
TL: It's the type of ugly you can't really let go of, you can't really forget about when you're thinking about how beautiful things are painted on one side and then you see the way those ribbons are painted. There's a lot behind there. I agree. It's not as beautiful, it's not as happy as our town. With that blue bird against that sunset, against their faces, against the distance between the two children and their mother, along with that ribbon that they're bringing down.
Audience: The houses in the back, I think in other paintings they are the shotgun houses for slave quarters. Having that next to this happy suburban house, I think also plays into that loss and invisibility/visibility.
JS: Yeah. They're really scary. What you had said about –
TL: Oh, there she is.
TL: I got one more. We could just walk somewhere where you guys can hear us, like in there. Just continue that way.
JS: What you were saying about vulnerability is so important.
Audience: Can you talk about the look of every face that’s just looking directly at the viewer?
TL: What are we going to do?
JS: I see what you're talking about.
Audience: I look at them and I go, "I'm never going to leave this." I’m pulled into it, like I'm part of this conversation. I don't know.
TL: If you want to start with your thought about vulnerability that we were talking about.
JS: Oh right, yes. Yes.
TL: At this point, I'm in a headspace where I want to talk about, after, I want to segue into – It's hard to describe.
JS: Whatever, you just go and then we'll . . .
JS: We could talk about any of them. This one is too much. I can't deal with that.
Audience: I know right. I think we can, but this is not vulnerability. This is – going back to the other painting when it was about implication, this room, it's intense. There's a lot of ...
JS: I think they’re having a hard time hearing.
TL: Hey, can you guys hear us? Is that all right?
TL: Oh man. I'm getting over a cold. I'm so sorry, but I can talk louder. Is that how you want me to talk? I'm yelling at you guys. I feel horrible. No, but I feel like this room is almost as intense and just as sublime as the other room. I feel like it gets to a place where I'm, I don't know, I'm overwhelmed. Talk about mourning, there's a certain amount of death in a lot of the activities that's going on in here. It's a little stronger for me than it was in the other room for some reason and I can't really shake it just yet, but – the gravity in here is intense. I don't want to interrupt. You have a thought about vulnerability.
JS: Well, you were pointing out, I think you made a really interesting point about the way in which the incidental in the paintings and the unplanned are connected to a feeling of vulnerability. I would say that on the part of the subjects, but also the artist, which you're helping me to really think about today. But that is contrast to what we were saying at the beginning about his mic throw down – painterly . . .
TL: Kind of, but not really though.
TL: I feel like I have just – I'm just assuming a lot about how he works in the studio. He could be walking around the studio naked just full of bravado, just bam this is my mark and just walk out for the day. I don't think that's what's happening, but I feel like at the same time – I feel like being able to understand my own studio problems and being able to see how a lot of images are built and a lot of material is treated, I can put myself in his place and I can try to think about what it means to struggle a little bit. I think the struggle in the painting is a thing he wants us to see and I think that struggle in the painting becomes something else when it's put in this context. I feel like it's still strength, if that makes sense. The struggle, all the mistakes, they're beautiful mistakes all of a sudden and they feed into a lot of our own presuppositions about the context, about the subject matter, about even me thinking about how he goes about making these images, about his struggle. I feel like that's something that he's very much aware of.
I think that's the other thing that's most interesting about this because then it becomes a conversation not about the subject matter. It becomes a conversation about him as a painter in the studio, performing a lot of these things, performing a lot of accidents in such a way as a painter does. So it’s kind of – Does that make sense?
TL: I think that's one of the things that I'm most interested in. I don't think they contradict, but I think one fits inside of the other. It's just important to understand, this is my opinion, it's interesting to try to work that out. Like, how vulnerability plays out here and how narrative plays out here. We're looking at scene after scene after scene of a pretty incredible narrative, and that narrative is super powerful. It's overwhelming to the point where I can't even consider – I would have to watch this particular film a few times just to have it all sink in. It's just that grand, but I think at the same time – I think that metaphor fits really well considering how closely connected I think he is to building images.
We talked about the big painting being a space where representation begins with painting or maybe some of you would argue with this, but I feel like a lot of – I feel in painting is where we first started getting in this world of what representation is. We think of it, what it means and what it's supposed to do. It's fitting that these types of – it's fitting that what he's able to do here with these images is not in photo, primarily. It's not in film, primarily. It's not in sculpture, primarily. It's in painting. And I think that's on purpose. Does that make sense now?
JS: And what you're saying about narrative, both in terms – like a grand narrative that maybe is connecting all of this work that makes me think about the particularities of narrative in each of the works and the way that they imply what has happened just before, just after, long before, what could happen long after, is something that seems especially powerful about his paintings.
TL: Yeah. Like I said before, I feel like I'm really happy to walk through this exhibition primarily because it's – I've said it a thousand times since you've all been listening, but it really feels like a huge celebration of painting and I'm just happy there's so many black faces. . . . The first thought I had when I talk about the reality, not the reality, maybe the function of the work is – going back to my first comment about what I first saw. I saw the presence of his signature, I saw the presence of a black figure, and I saw a great painting, and I feel like a lot of what that work did, a lot of what this work does is it culminates to the fact that you and I are standing here. In terms of what presence is, in terms of what presence this work can cultivate, I think it's literally you and I being able to stand here looking at these things and having a crowd of people listening to us talk about it, and I think that's a big part of where these paintings come from and what they shoot for; what they clearly achieved. Do you know what I mean?
TL: Yeah. I don't know.
JS: Well, that's happening. Yeah, yeah.
TL: Do you guys have any questions?
JS: I know, we wanted to have some time for that.
TL: Yeah. I don't know how much time we've got.
JS: Or a thought.
TL: I don't know if we're done. Do you guys have anything to say? Any questions?
Both: Thank you. Thank you, you all.
- Kerry James Marshall: Mastry–
- Short In this painting, a woman painter holds a paint palette in front of a paint-by-numbers portrait. Her skin is as black as the as the solid black background; she stares confidently into our eyes.
- Long This painted portrait depicts a young woman with jet-black skin holding a long, thin paintbrush up to a colorful, messy painter’s palette. She is shown in a three-quarter pose, gazing directly at the viewer. Her face, which is central to the square composition, stands out against a large, white, canvas, almost blending into the pitch-black background to her right. Closer inspection reveals, however, that her skin is subtly rendered, with various shades of contours and highlights. She wears two large hoop earrings, three small hoop earrings, and an oversized, boxy, high-collared jacket made of stiff fabric. Her voluminous hair—black with an ochre sheen—rises in thick coils on top of her head. The canvas to her left shows a partly finished paint-by-number self-portrait; in it, her likeness is broken up into smaller segments with pale-blue outlines and numbers. She has outlined many of the segments and filled them in with colors from her palette: orange, blue, yellow, pink, brown, and a few shades of green. The paint-by-number canvas does not accurately represent the color and pattern of the jacket she wears, which features mustard yellow sleeves and collar and deep blue and maroon and light yellow stripes.