Keeping the Culture speaks of a respect for traditional culture while simultaneously projecting a futuristic and positive family environment invoking thoughts of how we will all evolve in an advanced technical setting and at the same time clinging to our values and heritage. Keeping the Culture pays homage to the past, letting us appreciate the importance of the consequences of positive actions in order to promote an optimistic vision of the future, celebrating traditional and spiritual values that will stand true for generations to come.
Kerry James Marshall was born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, and was educated at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, from which he received a BFA, and an honorary doctorate (1999). The subject matter of his paintings, installations, and public projects is often drawn from African-American popular culture, and is rooted in the geography of his upbringing: "You can't be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you've got some kind of social responsibility. You can't move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it. That determined a lot of where my work was going to go," says Marshall.
In his "Souvenir" series of paintings and sculptures, he pays tribute to the civil rights movement with mammoth printing stamps featuring bold slogans of the era ("Black Power!") and paintings of middle-class living rooms, where ordinary African-American citizens have become angels tending to a domestic order populated by the ghosts of Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and other heroes of the 1960s. In "RYTHM MASTR," Marshall creates a comic book for the twenty-first century, pitting ancient African sculptures come to life against a cyberspace elite that risks losing touch with traditional culture. Marshall's work is based on a broad range of art-historical references, from Renaissance painting to black folk art, from El Greco to Charles White.
A striking aspect of Marshall's paintings is the emphatically black skin tone of his figures—a development the artist says emerged from an investigation into the invisibility of blacks in America and the unnecessarily negative connotations associated with darkness. Marshall believes, "You still have to earn your audience's attention every time you make something."
With his works in 2002, Marshall literally and metaphorically closes the curtain on the period where he commemorates and chronicles the civil rights movement and starts the beginning of his exploration of black aesthetics.
Marshall extends this concept into the visual arts by drawing upon the rich layering of language, music and art characteristic of black expression. Like a jazz composer superimposing multiple rhythms and harmonies, Marshall mixes a myriad of sources to highlight the uniqueness of black culture and to advance new interpretations of traditional Western art forms. According to Marshall, he has tried to "make a visual equivalent to the idiosyncratic, haunting music of Robert Johnson and Howling Wolf and blues that functions and resonates the same way as a musical form does." Marshall describes this work as sentimental and romantic ode to Africa as a source of black culture and creative inspiration.
The sheer beauty of Kerry James Marshall work speaks to an art that is simultaneously formally rigorous and socially engaged. Marshall lives in Chicago.
Museum and Public Collections
Whitney Museum of Art, New York
Dain Bosworth Inc., Los Angeles
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