Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Kerry James Marshall Interviewed by John Neff Part ll

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

This is the final post from this week's guest blogger, John Neff - Part ll to John Neff's interview with Kerry James Marshall.

Kerry James Marshall:      Let me go back to the collage, the paper.

John Neff:     Great –I’m still interested in how we get to the grid. For me, the grid of pages is an important thing in your paintings of the 1990s.

KJM:            I was just getting ready to talk about that. When I first started collaging the paper onto to the unstretched canvas to make the grid, I was also interested in creating irregularities in the grid itself. So that the paper would sift up, shift down. Sometimes it would be at a slight angle so there’d be a gap between sheets. There was still a lot of irregularity, even in the grid, because I was still trying to preserve a certain – there’s still a little bit of that rebelliousness, an unwillingness to completely conform.

JN:            And maybe a hangover from abstraction?

KJM:            That’s another thing that goes to what we were talking about earlier, the layering. How when you look at the work, you can read it from the back to the front.

JN:            Both perceptually and materially in most cases.

KJM:               It’s one of those cases of the modernist sensibility oriented towards preserving a relative flatness in the plane that you’re working on – even if you have an illusion of a certain kind of pictorial space.

In the paintings we’re discussing what you always end up with – as long as that grid of paper is there – is an inability to completely invest in the illusion of space. The grid keeps returning you to the surface of the thing. It’s almost like there’s another painting underneath the painting.

JN:            Well, that was another thing that I was thinking about in terms of accident and intention. Was the use of the paper a way of easily fixing mistakes – you could pry out one of the sheets and replace it?

KJM:            But I can’t pry out –

JN:            You can’t?

KJM:            – any of those. No. It would be one thing if I were assembling the painting from already painted pieces of paper. But I’m literally establishing a painting as a pattern underneath the painting that’s going to go on top. I’m composing the relationship between those squares of paper when I put them down. I decide when I want to have a half sheet as opposed to a whole sheet.  I decide –

JN:            Does this occur in relationship to the depicted image?  Or does it occur as a separate process?

KJM:            It’s completely separate. It’s a completely separate process. I do that first.  And then I look, and I say, “Am I satisfied with the ground?” It’s like, “Okay, I got this thing going on.”

JN:            With the idea of what’s going to go on that ground?

KJM:            Not specifically. Because often, when I make up the canvas, the only thing I have is a rough sketch that gives me the shape it’s going to be, the format. I’ll only have, basically, a thumbnail sketch. And then I set up, I make the canvas the size that the shape tells me it’s going to be.

JN:            And then you apply the paper?

KJM:            Right. Then I do the paper.

JN:            Which is done with rabbit-hide glue, or PVA, or . . ?

KJM:            No, with acrylic medium. I use matte medium to set that up.  And while I’m doing that, I’m making a picture with that paper, too.  I’m trying to create an interesting pattern of squares, with gaps that are also interesting . . . And then while that’s drying I go back and I work on the drawings that I’m going to transfer to the surface. 

JN:            When you put those pieces of paper on the canvas with the acrylic medium, it effectively plasticizes them?

KJM:            Yeah. 

JN:            Now you’ve moved to rigid supports made with the PVC – or fiberglass in some cases.

KJM:            Or plexi, clear acrylic.

JN:            Do you conceptualize the plastic, its artificiality, the synthetic quality of that support?  Or is it just a resistant surface that functions like a panel, but has advantages that wood wouldn’t have?

KJM:            It’s largely that. It doesn’t have the weight that wood has and it doesn’t shrink or expand in the same way. It’s lighter and they don’t make a wood panel that’s five feet wide.

JN:            Is the idea of the grid still as important to you as it was in the ‘90s?

KJM:            Well, it was then. It’s not now.

JN:            It’s not. Well, now a different kind of layering is taking place. One that’s got more to do with transparency and opacity, right? As the nature of the surface changes, becoming flatter and smoother, the pictorial devices that are overlapping also come from sources that are flatter and smoother and less about material overlay. A lot of the representational overlays now refer to photography, like the pin-up with the blurred hand or the lens flare and car blur in the big street scene.

My first encounter with your work was your show at the Renaissance Society, and I think because of that those paintings from the mid 1990s are the most significant for me.  That grid has always been an aspect of those paintings that’s reached out to me. But I almost never see it addressed. 

Another large-scale figurative artist who’s been important to me is Jeff Wall. Like you, he adopts certain standards that are taken from the tradition of the grand machine, and almost always has near or at life-size figures. And he also deploys a curious support in relationship to the history of his medium. And in his work, there is always this seam down the middle of the pictures.

KJM:            Right. 

JN:            But when those pictures are reproduced, either they’re done from the original digital file or everything is smoothed by a photographic reproduction.

Something similar happens to your paintings: the facture is obvious in photographs, but some subtleties of the support are effaced.

And one of those subtleties is that grid. I wonder if the tendency of a lot of critics and historians to write from reproductions is something that’s caused people to overlook that device of fabrication.

KJM:            It may be. I think what ends up happening with the way the work gets written about is that the writing never takes into account the picture as a thing. I don’t think they ever think of the picture as an object. And I’m always aware that the picture is an object.

JN:            Isn’t that axiomatic in contemporary art? The picture is a thing. “We don’t need to think about the thing, we just know it’s a thing.”

KJM:            We should always be reminded by some aspect of the picture that it is a thing. I always hope that people will use that as an integral part of the way they talk about the subject matter in the picture, the thing as well.

JN:            One could relate the process that you described of laying the pages on the canvases to literal cultivation, gardening. In the projects paintings and other related pictures, many of the scenes depict – not just gardening, but here I’m thinking of the souvenir picture with the angel carrying the vase of flowers - Is it a stretch to say that there’s a connection between the activities of the figures in the space of the picture and the processes that you’re engaged in when you’re making them? In terms of arrangement and ornamentation and beautification?

KJM:            That’s the thing: this layering thing is really important. It’s a conceptual layering and a material layering and a stylistic layering.

Way back in the ‘70s, Arnold Rubin did a catalogue for an exhibition of African art. [Possibly African Accumulative Sculpture; Power and Display. New York: The Pace Gallery, 1974. Rubin also published the article "Accumulation: Power and Display in African Sculpture," in the May 1975 issue of Artforum] The catalogue was divided into three areas: accumulation, power and display. According to that catalogue, those three factors were the basic aesthetic, conceptual, and material principles of a lot of African art. I started working with that . . .

To a lot of people who subscribe to a notion of the black aesthetic, the practice of and the centrality of ornamentation provides a conceptual logic for a black aesthetic. Take those Nkisi figures, what they call male fetish figures, in the Congo. The notion of accumulation, the notion of ornamentation and display.  Where often, the ornamentation is completely at odds with the underlying narrative structure of the thing.

JN:            Was your embrace of  “accumulation, power and display” gradually folded into an investment in Western, classical styles of composition?  Was that happening as you were developing your notion of the black artist’s relationship to the art world and art history?

KJM:            The idea of a black aesthetic is an important thing for me to explore. When you constantly have to find your own identity within an already existing and over-determining structure, everything ends up being an overlay. Everything is fraught with incredible ambivalence. And so there’s attraction, desire and rejection in almost everything. I think that’s why you see in my work an attraction towards the classical style, but a rejection of the totality of that project.

There’s always what you would call a synchronistic way of adding to classical styles things that are inconsistent with what we expect from those styles. These are the things that animate my activity.  And even if the project ultimately turns out to be a failure, there’s something about being able –

JN:            The project meaning your individual paintings, or the project meaning your life? Which are you talking about? [Laughs] Or is there no difference?

KJM:           Well, in a way, there’s little difference.

JN:            It seems like youlocate your subjectivity entirely within the processes that you’re engaged in and their interaction with specific places. Your relationship to, for example, the art of the past wasn’t one of romantic identification with the lives of the artists. It was what they did, and what position they occupied.

KJM:            To me, that’s the whole thing . . . Everything I do has some sort of strategic implication. What I see as preparing the field for –

JN:            To return of the metaphor of cultivation.

KJM:            But also you could take it to the field of battle. There is an ongoing struggle that on some level previous generations of African American artists never fully engaged.

JN:            What is that struggle? It’s interesting that you use that word given the apparent placidity of a lot of your figures and subjects.

KJM:            Some of that has to do with resisting the conventional narratives in which you encounter the presence of a black figure as subject . . . But the struggle is not – it’s not a struggle for a dignified representation. The struggle is for proprietorship, ownership of the terms of engagement and/or the definitions of a particular proposition. That’s, to me, where the real struggle is.

The way I read it, for most of the artists who preceded us – and for African American artists in general – the struggle, defined by the Civil Rights movement, was a struggle for inclusion and acceptance. Which, as far as I can see, keeps the practitioner perpetually in a secondary state.

If you accept the field as it has been articulated over the last several hundred years - the period in which the Europeans became dominant in the world - the narrative of that dominance, which includes the mastery in the production of artworks, begins to be reified. Once it becomes concrete, in that sense, it becomes unassailable – a fortress of European dominance and mastery in every domain, over people and over ideas and over forms. And around the periphery of that, you have everybody else.

In the beginning, every other culture had produced magnificent artifacts. They existed in either the ancient or the primitive world. Then, after the moment of European dominance, you have no evolutionary links to the development of any sort of philosophical or aesthetic ideas to which those at the periphery can lay claim that have a competitive capacity to challenge the dominance of the European model. That’s the overarching structure. You have generations of people who are now trying to find a place for themselves in the narrative, but their place can only be arrived at and secured if it’s been authorized by the existing structure.

JN:            From inside the castle?

KJM:            From inside the castle. The people inside the castle. We are the barbarians at the gates. And the people inside the castle can look out the turrets, select people from the crowd, and invite them in. So you could become oriented towards waiting out in the crowd and hoping that somebody from inside starts to invite you in. Or you can step out of the crowd and walk around the castle and see if there are places where the chinking is not quite so tight. Figure out where the weaknesses are in the castle so that you can breach the wall and maybe everybody will flood in, as opposed to being let in one at a time.

JN:            Then your conservatism has nothing to do with preservation, preservation of the status quo?

KJM:            I’m not interested in the preservation of the status quo at all. Now, I don’t dismiss the value in the achievements of the existing structure and order.

JN:            But what you’re describing isn’t the model of  “changing the establishment from within.”

KJM:            I’m oriented not only towards trying to understand how things are the way they are, but how you – Mine is a much more competitive model, that believes the current power dynamic is not entitled to remain the current power dynamic. And if more people had the capacity to generate new and/or more meaningful transformation, then you’d have shifting balances of power . . . But you can’t get to that by ignoring the establishment of the previous order.

JN:            So do you have a utopian vision of a society where there’s a sort of generalized mastery?

KJM:            It has more to do with whether or not you will always be a part of a losing team or whether your team actually has the capacity to win the pennant. There is an idealistic element to it, but it’s not particularly utopian because I don’t know that I believe in a broadly distributed happiness, equality. I’m aware that there’s a dynamic tension between people who have capacities and people who don’t. But what I’m not satisfied with is feeling like I’m part of a community that is perpetually outside the capacity to make things happen.

If you buy into a passive relationship to the mechanisms of history – the notion that the processes of history aren’t driven by will as much as they are by contingent circumstances – then you’re in a position where you’re sort of waiting around to see what happens. If interesting things happen, then you say, “Oh, yeah.”

There’s a way in which I’m internalizing the ways that representation has worked, but only so that I can gather up all of that information and perhaps arrive at a synthesis that produces something that nobody expected.

That’s the whole thing.  These are all parts of an experimental process that is designed to gather information and experience and the ability to see things in action as opposed to passively.

JN:            Is the theory you’ve just described, the conceptual relationship to history and production that you’ve just described, something you developed as a rhetoric alongside the development of the picture-making style that we’ve been discussing? Did you think, “I need to figure out a way to verbalize this approach to art that’s compelling and succinct and repeatable”?

KJM:            I have the conviction to communicate it.

JN:            And the performance skills.

KJM:            Maybe it just seems necessary because what I’m really trying to do – I mean, the reason I talk the way I talk – is because maybe somebody else will hear me and say, “Yeah, let’s do this.”

JN:            To return to the missionary idea.

KJM:            Somebody once said to me that I was like an art evangelist.

JN:            Oh, absolutely. 

KJM:            I say these things to everybody . . . I mean to see bands, small bands of black artists committed to trying to assume a dominant position in the arena of visual production or aesthetic philosophy … All of those things that the whole Post-Modernist ethos would claim have reached exhaustion.

We’re past the end game. But the community of black people in general is not even a part of the endgame discourse of Post-Modernism. If you’re not even a part of that – or not a part of that yet – then just before the whole system unwinds or collapses you’ve got to figure out a way to at least get in the game. Otherwise, you’re perpetually on the outside. For anybody who has a measure of self-respect, that’s not a satisfying place to be. To the degree that I’m invested in anything that’s related to the art world, it’s because of that.

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 Ishar: Marginal Waters. Neff received an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2001. He lives and works in Chicago.

Image Captions and Credits from top to bottom:
Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Pin-Up) 2, 2008
Kerry James Marshall, 7am Sunday Morning, 2003. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Joseph and Jory Shapiro Fund by exchange.

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