There are two different reasons that I like a painting: the overall visual effect appeals to me emotionally, or the painting has interesting ideas and plastic elements. For example, I like Picasso and Kandinsky for both reasons, the Barbizon school for the first reason, and Dali and Magritte for the second reason. Usually it’s a mix.
However, Kerry James Marshall is a weird case. I strongly dislike how his paintings look – there’s an instinctive desire to close my eyes or walk away – yet I still find them interesting enough that I stare at them for hours.
When walking around the Kerry James Marshall exhibition at MOCA for a first round of coarse look, I was not particularly attracted to any painting. As I was about to leave in disappointment, a staff member was leading a group discussion on Past Times. Two of the little girls in the group were incredibly observant, and pointed out many elements that slipped my attention. I realized that I could still enjoy the individual building blocks of his paintings without finding it pleasant as a whole.
In Past Times, the golf player and the croquet player freeze in motion, but the music notes continue flowing out of the radio. The motion is stopped at one fixed instance of time, whereas the music notes show the passage of the time.
So I went around the gallery again carefully to search for other interesting ideas, and this time Kerry James Marshall did not disappoint. This untitled portrait contains a rich set of ideas, and it is from a series of portraits of black artists with palettes and color worksheets. (At first I thought it was a series of self-portraits but later found out Kerry James Marshall is a male artist.)
- The artist is probably facing a mirror, based on the sitting posture. It’s unclear whether she is coloring the numbered worksheet at the back, or whether she is painting this painting itself.
- The painting is recursive, and if you look at the color worksheet carefully, the gray part left of her red hair also has the shape of her hair, so it’s a third layer of recursion.
- The artist is almost entirely in black, but her blouse is very colorful, and so is the image of her in the color worksheet. Metaphorically, black artists are unnoticed by the society and deserve more attention.
- The palette is unproportionally huge. Perhaps this goes along the same line that black artists are underrepresented and hidden behind their work.
- It’s possible to complete the color worksheet based on the numbers and the existing colors. Even though no one would actually complete it, it’s entertaining to leave a room for such imagination.
- It suggests a different way to perceive colors. Usually, we look at the overall color scheme as a whole when the colors are all visually present. In this color worksheet, we look at individual parts and ask what color the number corresponds to.
Another interesting one is Black Painting (2003), which depicts the murder scene of African American activist Fred Hampton in different shades of black. For more information about Black Painting: