History Painting

History Painting

Realism should always raise the question: Whose realism? Whether revising false idylls of presidential plantations that treat their slaveholding as incidental; making comic book superheroes based on African deities; or critiquing the reduction of images of resistance to commodified mementos, Kerry James Marshalls paintings and installations of American iconography play with and correct the national record and reveal its obscene elisions. The conventions of history painting provide Marshall with a grammar for thinking with paint. He deploys American-historical tropes to reveal what has been suppressed by (aptly named) "master-narratives" — national myths and mystifications inscribed on mass-cultural surfaces.

Visible Means of Support, a new diptych of large-scale paintings by the Chicago-based artist, is currently on view on the walls at each side of the Haas Atrium in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Forming a dynamic gateway into the museum, like two luminous pages of a giant coloring book, the walls distort canonical images of Mount Vernon and Monticello, the estates of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson respectively. The work, which the public can view for free, was installed in February with the assistance of mural artists from Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes community building through public works. For 15 days in February visitors could watch Marshall and the Precita Eyes muralists on 30-foot-high scaffolds, brushing in the images with house paint, sometimes working from maquettes, on occasion with flashlights in hand.

Standing at the outer edge of each mural, Washington and Jefferson invite viewers at once to their plantations and into the museum. The plantations’ topographies include mazes of brightly colored, swerving rectangles, colliding crossroads and dead-end highways, which riff as much on the labyrinthine structure of graffiti as on the topiaries of wealthy estates. The result is a lyrical mosaic that stacks and distributes its elements with a narrative logic that is colorfully disarming and contagiously kinetic.

Marshall deployed the nostalgic vernacular of the coloring book with the intention of making it easier for people to engage with the traumatic history the paintings explore. Two children set out to traverse a risky maze, like players on a game board. The bright colors and cartoon style seem to denote playful games, yet the scene is one of reckoning: Innumerable slaves are rendered variously throughout, here flat as if held under glass, there embedded in the property as if extensions of it. The subtexts of entrapment and escape charge the image with grief. Faces are camouflaged in trees like spirits, oscillating in and out of view. One figure is composed of connect-the-dots, each of which on closer view is a tiny numbered face, economic units in a signifying chain.

By contrast, the presidents’ bodies are enormous, hyper-elongated, and warped, stretching nearly the height of the wall. Washington and Jefferson, as Marshall notes, are the presidents "around whom a certain idea and image of American life has been formulated." Reflecting on their elastic figuration, he remarks that, "It made sense to use the anamorphic image because these figures are really outsized in our imagination, and what we know of them is distorted, reduced to sound bites: ‘I cannot tell a lie... ’" With pouting lips and a jaundiced eye, Jefferson is grim-faced as he displays his estate, Washington likewise as he stands on the neck of a literally downtrodden brown body laid out along the land, also hyperextended, his leg caught in a maze.

The discrepancies in scale graph grotesquely disproportionate hierarchies of power and entitlement. Commenting on the works’ contemporary resonance, Marshall, whose past work has frequently engaged with histories of racism and representation, noted that "slavery as we knew it was an American commercial enterprise that required levels of exploitation people say are unacceptable now. But what we see with this global economic collapse is that the means for achieving profitability over the long haul requires almost the same thing. And if the low-wage workers who are disadvantaged have no capacity to reverse the process, then the same dynamic prevails." Marshall described the paintings as "landscapes of privilege," yet they keenly demonstrate the ways in which privilege is on the same map as suffering.

Marshall’s diptych is at once cartography, historiography, and a penetrating diagnostic that upends the narrative of the United States’ constitution and founding. The paintings recollect that the basis of American capitalism is slavery, while also suggesting that our social structures are transformable.

They challenge historical accounts, which merely accrue dead habits of perception, and argue for a multidimensional realism with rhetorical force.

Visible Means of Support will be on view until 2010 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

"History Painting" originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' May 2009 Table of Contents.