Monday, May 3, 2010

Kerry James Marshall Interviewed by John Neff Part l

Guest Blogger:
John Neff,
Chicago-based Artist and Writer

This is the first out of two blog 
posts from John Neff. Part ll 
of the interview will be posted 
on Wednesday.

I first encountered Kerry James Marshall’s paintings – his paintings, not photographs of his paintings – at his 1998 Renaissance Society solo exhibition Momentos. The impact of those paintings on me was so strong that, since then, I’ve taken every opportunity I can to view the artist’s works in person. In particular, I’ve sought out Marshall’s large-scale acrylic and collage paintings on unstretched canvas from the 1990s. Examining those paintings, I’ve always been curious about the relationships between Marshall’s compositional technique, his method of rendering, his use of collage and his choice of support. Recently, I had an opportunity address these issues in a conversation with the artist. What follows is a transcript of that discussion; it has been edited for clarity and length. – John Neff

John Neff:     I’ll begin by reading a couple of prepared questions, but I’m sure that we’ll wander. And when we do, I hope that you’ll forgive my verbosity.

Kerry James Marshall:     All right. [Laughs]

JN:            Your work as an artist deals with the interconnections between political representation and pictorial representation.  That’s well established by you and by others, right?

KJM:            Correct.

JN:            A great deal has been written about the relationships between your chosen subjects, your field of historical references and your institutional contexts.

KJM:            Correct.

JN:            However, there’s been less in-depth attention paid to your chosen techniques as such.  That is to say, techniques as processes rather than references. Would you agree with that?

KJM:            I think I’d agree with that, yeah.

JN:            You paint in a style that refers to the European grand manner, so I’d like to know if you actually compose your paintings in the traditional manner, i.e. from sketch to color sketch to underpainting to finished work.

KJM:            For the most part, I do. It depends, in some cases, on how much time I have before I have to finish the piece. I might eliminate a step or two in between…

JN:            Based on your production timeline?

KJM:            Yes. The one thing I rarely do is a color sketch. I do a lot of drawings, a lot of diagrams, to lay out the composition. And then I do more detailed drawings of parts. I almost never do a finished drawing of the entire composition.

JN:            And why is the color sketch less important?

KJM:            Most of it, I think, has to do with time, but it’s not like I’ve never done one, and it’s not like I don’t do some color studies. But it almost always depends on how much time I think I have.

If I have a clear enough concept of where I’m going chromatically with the work, I can see it in my headand know how to establish the bases for the picture in the picture.

But if I want to make a kind of picture that I'm unfamiliar with, then I’ll do a color study to get myself in the frame of mind - the conceptual frame - to understand the logic of that kind of painting.

JN:            It’s interesting that you say logic because that’s another question I have about your process and the encounters I imagine you having with traditional composition and fabrication. It seems like you’ve got a process that peels the painting into separate layers, scrutinizes each layer individually, and then laminates them back together.

Looking at your paintings, I can see all of those layers floating within the illusionistic representation. The figures have an angular, faceted look. The highlights have a crystalline quality. So there’s an overlay of representational effects that serve to create a depiction, but also to highlight the individual mechanisms involved in that depiction. They’re not blended…It somehow makes sense that color is less significant.

KJM:            Part of that has to do with my fascination –you could say obsession – with how things are made. Demonstrating in the work how it’s made is a part of that obsession. I don't conceal all of the mechanisms of representation because I want people to understand how the work was made.

It’s that is was made, and how it was made.  Every layer of the work shoulddemonstrate to the viewer that this is how this is done.

It really goes to the way I started out as an artist, figuring out what it was going to take to be an artist like the artists I was looking at. I became obsessed with how they did what they did.

The other part of this is about creating a way of short-circuiting the authority of critics and historians who somehow, for the longest time and for a lot of people, seemed to be a class of people who had an exclusive insight into what made artworks work and what made artworks have value. 

JN:            So by laying bare the process, you’re debunking the idea of the critic’s unique insight into the work?

KJM:            No, the ability of a critic to designate one thing as having more value than another thing – because they know more about the way things function than anybody else.

This all has to do with trying to figure out a way to assume more individual control over the levels of success you’re able to achieve in a domain that seems to be governed almost exclusively by individual subjectivities. It has to do with this notion that there are mysteries in art, in this thing called art, available to some but unavailable to others. And if they’re unavailable to others, then that provides a vehicle through which people can be excluded from the levels of success that they might want to achieve in that field.

JN:             What’s so curious and paradoxical is your embrace of the ultimate sign of exclusivity and achievement in pictorial representation . . . the mastery of the grand machine.

KJM:           To me that’s not a sign of exclusivity. Mastery is only a sign exclusivity if you presume that there are some special attributes that allow for the achievement of mastery. That it’s not based on something that you can know, something that you can actually see and then something that you can actually implement.

JN:            So by taking a purely materialistic attitude toward it you break it down?

KJM:            Essentially, you break it down . . . Expose the wires, the inner workings, and then it’s available to anybody who wants to try to do it.

JN:            Is the ultimate goal to deflate the authority of the system you’re intervening in? Traditionally, mastery depends on the quasi-mystical specialness of the master.

KJM:            What it does is erase the mystical element. It doesn’t deflate mastery as a desirable trait, a desirable goal. I think mastery is something worth working for. The veil of mystery that surrounds how you achieve mastery – that’s the thing I’m interested in eradicating.

JN:            Let me ask you a question about sophistication and mastery versus naïveté and, I guess, rawness.  A lot of your early paintings, prior to the housing projects series, refer as much to a vernacular tradition of sign painting – say carnival banners – as to European high art painting.

For you, how does that function in relationship to what we were just talking about, having some material understanding of how one achieves a condition of mastery. Why insert this foil into the high art of painting. Why double the reference?

KJM:            Why double it? Well, in part because there’s a way in which I’ve tried to bridge a gap between these two poles . . . It’s the insider and the outsider, the one who knows and the one who is naïve about what they do. There are two levels of mastery. 

I really started thinking about this back in the early ‘80s in Los Angeles. The L.A. County Museum of Art did a show called Black Folk Art in America, where I first discovered the work of Bill Traylor. It was some of the most amazing stuff I’d ever seen.

                        There was a raw power in Traylor’s work, but what made it work so well, what was so uncanny about that work, was that you could see him struggling with rudimentary principles of representation - how to construct a body or a figure. It's as if somebody had given him a chart with circles, squares and triangles and he started trying to build his figures from that.

            That’s what it looked like . . . There’s a clear sense that he didn’t know how to take it past the rudimentary in terms of structure, but even given those limitations, he found a way to be incredibly inventive. There’s a great deal of novelty in Bill Traylor’s work.

When I saw that show, I wished I could’ve been Bill Traylor. Because that work was as fresh and as inventive and as powerful – and then as structurally revealing – as anything else I’d ever seen.

I had already explored the High Renaissance; I had already gone that route . . .

JN:            Because of your studies with Charles White?

KJM:            Not just with Charles White, but because of the fact that when you go to the library to get books on art, that’s the art you see. There isn’t anything else.

The dilemma I was facing was: how did I take advantage of or incorporate everything I liked about Bill Traylor into everything I liked about Piero della Francesca? How do you do both of those things at the same time?

JN:            Well, in the paintings of the mid ‘90s [the housing projects and Souvenir series] you achieved that by a kind of overlay.

KJM:            Right. That ends up being a part of the way you can do it. If you go back to my painting Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self [1980], that picture was pivotal. The image itself functions in a schematic, rudimentary way, like Bill Traylor’s things.  But the way it’s made is completely consistent with the way Michelangelo laid out The Last Judgment.

JN:            You use the word “invention” in describing the graphic eccentricities of Bill Traylor’s work; another way to say it would be “acceptance of accident.”

KJM:            Well, the problem with the notion of accident in Bill Traylor is that it’s not accidental, because he repeats the same –

JN:            I said acceptance of accident, which is a different thing.

KJM:            But it becomes a formalized mode.  It becomes a device. It’s not like something happened and he said, “Oh, I think I’ll just go with it.”

JN:            I’m not proposing anything so simple.  I’m just saying that some of those stylistic novelties might come from contingent episodes in the making of the pictures.

KJM:            This is where the mystery of Bill Traylor sort of comes in – what he was actually doing. He did so much work, but over the body of that work there’s absolute consistency. 

I mean, it operates within a very narrow range.  There are no radical exceptions in the entire body of Bill Traylor’s work where you can say, “This is an anomaly . . . I wonder why and how he arrived at that moment or how that occurred.” You don’t ever ask that, at least I don’t. I never asked that about Bill Traylor’s work.

JN:            I see what you’re saying. Returning to your banner / grand machine paintings, there does seem to be an attempt to introduce –maybe accident is the wrong word – contingency, unpredictable irregularity.

KJM:            In?

JN:            The gestural mark making on top of the images, for example.

KJM:            Well, some of that is deploying what we understand to be modalities of modernist painting.

JN:            But they’re particularly awkward in some cases. They don’t have the fluidity of, say, a de Kooning abstract brushstroke. They meander.

KJM:           That’s only because de Kooning was constructing his entire picture out of those kinds of gestures, those kinds of marks. It was consistent across the entire surface.  I was using those strokes as discreet marks.

JN:             To say that those strokes are “the arbitrary” abrading classical pictorial structure would be incorrect in your eyes?

KJM:            They’re evidence of the fact that I’m incapable of preserving the consistency of the classical model because I’ve seen too many other things, viable things, in between . . .

It’s an acknowledgment that, even though I might be committed to the preservation of a certain formal logic from classical paintings, I am also a product of the two or three hundred years since those paintings. I have a wider, much wider vocabulary of marks and gestures.  And it seems that a part of what I’m, for lack of a better word, required to do –

JN:            Required by whom?

KJM:            Required by the moment. Let’s say by this historical moment. What you’re required to do, and what a lot of my work does, is embrace and/or take advantage of all of the dimensions of the history of painting from then until now. It’s an obligation. And you have to show it; at least I did at that time. You have to show it. 

JN:            A lot of painters of your and slightly earlier generations use pastiche and overlap as pictorial modes: David Salle, Sigmar Polke, Larry Pittman.  But your attitude towards pastiche and overlapping isn’t ironic, but rather – what’s the best way to describe it? Missionary?

KJM:            You could say that.

JN:            Which is odd, because to say “missionary attitude” is to imply a purity of intention that seems to be contradicted by the heterogeneity of stylistic references overlapped in those paintings.

From a typically Post-Modern view, pastiche is about undermining of the idea of intention, style, authorship. Pastiche is against mastery – especially when it’s used by somebody like Salle or Polke.

KJM:            You may be able to make that argument with David Salle, with Sigmar Polke, with a lot of the artists who were operating at that time . . . But they weren’t really internalizing any of the reasons why or the ways in which those forms came into existence. They were only interested in image as such – and image as pastiche as such.  You could argue that they felt they were in opposition to the history in ways that I don’t think I ever did.

JN:            They were entitled to that opposition?

KJM:            Well, I’m not entitled to be in opposition to the history because I’ve always felt that the history wasn’t mine to begin with . . .

JN:            So is your inhabitation of the process a way of inhabiting the history and coming to own it? 

KJM:            On one level, you do.  You have to take some ownership of it from the inside out, as opposed to from the outside in. 

JN:            Is that an ownership that comes first in attitude and then in action?  Or do you arrive at it through the constant daily practice of, for example, a particular form of draftsmanship, a particular form of organizing paintings and applying color and so on and so forth?

KJM:            You could say a daily practice, but it’s not so simple as a daily practice of drawing. For me, you come to ownership of it as a calculated, strategic mission to deflect any kind of criticism. If I arrived at a point in those kinds of paintings where I set up the classical form, and then I disrupted it, the whole idea was to deflect any kind of criticism that I didn’t completely understand the basic form.  So that when you disrupt it, your disruption is not an intelligent disruption, it’s somehow an accidental occurrence. 

JN:            Okay. That confuses the idea of disruption and in incorporation in an interesting way.

KJM:            Because at some point, if you think about what I think I’m doing – overall, as an artist – what is the whole point of the exercise and enterprise?  What is it all about? What am I trying to do? 

It goes to what I was saying earlier. What I’m really trying to do is to show that every level of mastery that underpins the master narrative of the development of art historycan be easily understood, deciphered, and then deployed.  But the goal is not just to reach that kind of mastery so that you can do it too.  The goal is ultimately to try to get to the other side of it, or to internalize it and understand it so thoroughly that you can then start to participate in the invention of new levels and new forms and new aspects of representation as a generator as opposed to an imitator. 

It all goes to a basic relationship, in the United States I’ll say, between . . . black people who create under the weight of not only a dominant white Eurocentric culture, but a dominant white Eurocentric history and that culture and history. In that entire historical narrative the presence of black folks is zero when it comes to the invention of new forms of knowledge or approaches to representation. We are absent from that level of the game, that level of the discourse.

My whole problem is: how do you get to a place where rather than being the object of discovery, you are the agent of discovery?

That’s the fundamental problematic. And it’s the problematic that, I would argue, every non-white person who tries to make art has to come to terms with. The problem they have to solve is: how do you get from behind, which is where we all are, to the front?

JN:            It’s interesting that you take a problem/solution position. One way to approach that condition is eliminating the idea of distinction altogether - embracing non-knowledge.

KJM:            The problem with that is that all of these things depend on the buy-in of large numbers of people who agree that these structures are the ones that are meaningful and relevant at a given time.

JN:            I recall your telling a story about having, early on, a show of collages that was reviewed dismissively as “pleasant but trite.”

KJM:            But that wasn’t the first time I’d shown work. At that time [during the 1970s, while the artist was in school at Otis and immediately after this moment] I was doing collage, but I started out wanting to learn the techniques associated with being a realist. That’s what I wanted in the beginning.

JN:            Well, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you about your studio process is because you came to a point – in, say, the early 1990s –where not just in terms of the painting devices combined in individual works, but also in terms of the material support for the works, there was a bizarre hybridization of collage and realist depiction.

In your paintings from the ‘90s, there’s a traditional support, but it’s deployed in an unconventional manner that refers as much to a vernacular tradition as to a high art tradition. Furthermore, there is on each painting a grid of sheets of paper.

KJM:            Yes. 

JN:            In practical terms and theoretical terms what led you to the unstretched canvas, and that grid?

KJM:            This is where the influence of Charles White helped to determine some of the choices I made. He was primarily a graphic artist.  And as a very young artist I wanted to be a draftsman, to do all my work on paper. There was something about working on paper.

I started buying paper in rolls. There was something about cutting off a sheet of paper, a big sheet of paper off of a roll: you get an uneven edge. That was something to be desired. Originally, when I started working on paper, the irregularity of the paper when you cut it meant something to me. Because that was a way, at first, of sort of breaking away from and out of the rigid confines of the stretched canvas.

JN:            The given and the square. It’s also in keeping with certain forms of Post-Minimal drawing.

KJM:            Plus there was a kind of disregard – like a lot of young people when they’re going to school or just coming out of school, at least that was the case when I was going to school at Otis - for the authority of the school as an institution, painting as an institution, the museum. All of those things. It was as if all I knew was the radical act, what I thought was a radical act.  I had no real comprehension of the implications of any of it. For example, I took this printmaking class and I thought: “they say I have to do 15 prints and every one of them has to be the same? I refuse to do that.” [Laughs]

I was completely contrary to almost everything when I was in school. That was one of the things that led me to collage in the first place, doing a lot of collage and assemblage work with found objects.

JN:            Did those collages include your own drawings, your own representational drawings? 

KJM:            For a period there was no imagery in them at all. They started as cut paper collages that were narrative, with imagery.  Then I went through a phase where they were completely abstract. I was doing mixed media with collage – it was just about surface and texture and stuff like that. 

I’d find a postcard on the street, and that would become a ground to work on.Some of that came out of this notion that I never expected to make a living or make any money as an artist. Or to have anybody interested enough to buy a piece of work that I made. If that was going to be case, well I could do anything I wanted to do. I adopted a lot of practices that seemed antithetical, in a way, to the marketplace.

JN:            Did the gradual squaring of the page, and its application to the canvas, correspond to deeper involvement with the art world?

KJM:            The first success I had was with those collages, the little collages.  They were small, and they were all abstract. That’s when the review in the L.A. Times came out. 

And it made sense. I understood. Because while I was making the work,
I understood that one of the problems with abstraction in general, and with the kind of abstraction I was doing in particular, is that there’s a generic, conventional modality for abstraction. And all it really requires is a minimal investment of time and a little bit of energy, and eventually you can push that paint around and it’ll end up in a configuration that’s sort of –

JN:             Satisfying?

KJM:            -- satisfying, yes.  And it began to be unsatisfying to me to do it. Then I had that show and I got that review, and it just confirmed for me that that was a dead end. And that’s when I did the Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self.

With that picture, I literally went all the way back to the late medieval period, early Renaissance and started to remember all of the stuff that I had said I wanted to go to art school to learn how to do in the first place.

Which was to learn, how did Michelangelo make that?  How did they do that?  How do you do composition? What are the principles of composition?  What are the principles of color?  After that period of casualness, I started to understand that there is actually some value in a systematic approach to constructing an image, because therein you have the capacity to make the kind of thing you want, rather than just deciding whether to keep something that happened while you were doing work.

JN:            So to clarify the timeline: you worked on the collages in and just out of school, then slowly moved into the drawings on large roll paper?

KJM:            Right.  And I started mapping out. But I still had the rough edge. And I thought that would be a suitable contrast: between the mapping of the composition and the irregularity of the paper. The thought was, “Okay, this is the way you have a little bit of tension between those two things.” You’ll be completely invested in the rigid framework and construction of the picture, but then you’d have this other thing happening. And people would wonder, “What is that about against this?” 

JN:            But the drawing and the paper edge are still divorced from one another spatially?

KJM:            Yes.

JN:            Then what led you to apply the pages to canvas? Presumably at some point you wanted to work so large that you had to make something collapsible, so that it could get out of the studio?

KJM:            When I was still working on paper, cut paper, I was doing really large things, and it started to become apparent that paper wasn’t a durable enough surface to work on.

JN:            Because of problems that you had in the studio, or in exhibitions?

KJM:            A combination of both. I was sticking them up with pushpins.  Sometimes, with the weight of paper, if you don’t have enough pushpins you get tears in all of the pushpin holes. After a while that started to become an annoyance because I ended up spending time trying to repair the rips. There were so many things that started to go wrong with the paper.I tried to solve that problem by putting them in shadowboxes, shallow frames.

JN:            Which undermined the portability and the irregularity of the edge?

KJM:            Although they were floated in the boxes so that you could see all of the irregularity of the edges, of everything. But, at a certain point, I started seeing diminishing returns in that as a strategy.

By then I was leaving L.A. and going to New York for a residency in ’84. At the Studio Museum. There, the two things came together: the canvas and the paper.

Also, I have a preference for the surface of drawing paper.

JN:            Again, the draftsman by nature and training.

KJM:            Which is one of the reasons why I started using egg tempera paint as a painting method – it’s closer to drawing than other forms of painting. 

JN:            Because it’s more about filling in and layering?

KJM:            It's more about filling in and layering. You’re building up: it’s not just the density of the strokes, it’s what’s underneath that matters, too. The process requires a fair amount of precision. In the mid ‘80s I was becoming more interested in precision – but precision with variance.

In my fascination with how things are made, when I wanted to learn how something worked, I’d go and find every bit of information I could. I collected every single article that was ever written on Andrew Wyeth. I’d go to used magazine stores and find every single one of those “artist’s” magazines, and clip those articles. I wanted to read all of the things that people said about what Wyeth did, but I was also looking for what he said about how he did it.

I had the 13th century Cennini treatise on egg tempera painting. Then a book that came out called New Techniques in Egg Tempera Painting by Robert Vickrey. Then I had the George Tooker book. And Jared French and Paul Cadmus – all of those people. I looked at all of that stuff. 

JN:            White was primarily a graphic artist, but he would have been coming of age at about the right time for that revival of tempera painting that occurred in the mid-century.

KJM:            Well, White did egg tempera paintings.

JN:            It also seems that, after the collages, with Portrait of the Artist and other works of the 1980s, you returned not only to a long historical tradition, but also to your original inspirations.

KJM:            All of that. I was reading. I was trying to emulate the style that Charles White had around the egg tempera painting. And Robert Vickrey made it clear that you didn’t have to build everything with cross-hatching. You could do a lot of different kinds of brushstrokes. You could splash. You could throw. You could scumble. And that opened up a wide range of techniques.

JN:            So there was a confluence of events for you in the mid ‘80s: the exploration of a new medium that had art-historical and personal resonance for you, aspirations to larger sized and scaled works, and the investigation of a new figurative mode …

KJM:            And a desire to continue to working on paper, but a need for the kind of durability and strength that canvas provides – although not an interest in the weave and the surface of canvas per se.

JN:            By this point, you were losing interest in the gesture and roughness of the torn edge of that roll paper, too?

KJM:            Well, when I first started collaging the paper onto the canvas, and working on unstretched canvas, I kept a little bit of that irregularity of shape because when you prime or gesso the canvas, you get stretching.

JN:            Do you do the seaming and the grommeting prior to painting or after painting?

KJM:            I had these made at Chicago Canvas and Drop Cloth. [Gesturing toward works on the studio wall]

JN:            Now you have somebody make them for you? That’s always much easier. [Laughs]

KJM:            But before I was doing the finishing and grommeting myself.

JN:            Did you staple the canvases to the wall, paint them, pull them down and then do the finishing work?  Or did you do the finishing work on the edges first?

KJM:            I did that after the painting. I only did the finishing after the fact. So you get an odd, not quite square thing, and that was okay for me.

The thing is – the fascinating thing on some level, I guess – is that the more success you have, the more you’re participating in the mainstream institutions, the less and less a lot of those irregularities matter to you. You start to fall in line– like everybody else falls in line.

John Neff produces works of art, organizes exhibitions and practices art writing. His 2006 installation Pornographic Pantograph with Allusion to Juan Sanchez Cotan (In Progress, Patent Pending) is included in the MCA Chicago's current show Production Site. Neff has curated exhibitions of work by, among others, John Boskovich, Peter Downsbrough, Jeanne Silverthorne and Holt Quentel. His writing has appeared in a number of contexts, including the Chicago-based journal BAT and the exhibition catalogues Vincent Como: In Praise of Darkness... and Doug Ischar: Marginal Waters. Neff received an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2001. He lives and works in Chicago.

Image Caption and Credit, from top to bottom:
Kerry James Marshall, Souvenir I, 1997. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Bernice and Kenneth Newberger Fund. © Kerry James Marshall
Study for "Many Mansions", 1994, Black and white Conté crayon, with stumping, on ivory wove paper
Kerry James Marshall, Many Mansions, 1994, Artist Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, © Kerry James Marshall

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