Kerry James Marshall is one of our most beguiling living painters. I’m continually drawn back to his work, even when I feel I know it. A part of my mind — the rational part — is always expecting to “solve” his pictures, as if to save them from the feeling that something doesn’t quite add up.
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But something more powerful and instinctive in me is seduced for other reasons. This part wants the mystery prolonged, deepened. It’s a sign of how good Marshall is that this second part is always gratified.
This painting, “Slow Dance,” is in the collection of the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. Like other figurative paintings, it’s first of all an object, made from paint applied to fabric, wood or metal. In this case, the canvas isn’t framed, it’s simply pinned to the wall — one of the many things Marshall does to slow us down and draw attention to the image’s materiality, its thingness.
Still, the paint creates a lovely illusion. A man and a woman are in an intimate embrace, dancing in a gorgeously colored interior. A blue couch recedes in space according to the laws of perspective. The couch and a certain fading in the lines separating the floorboards help us infer the space as three-dimensional. But other things — including the patterned rug — ignore conventional perspective. Pulling us back to the surface of the picture, they remind us that we’re looking at an illusion — a kind of trick, or seduction.
The painting, too, shows a seduction scene. So, suddenly we’re involved in … if not a hall of mirrors, then at least something a little more complex than it initially appears.
Marshall has created a kind of collage of different styles and cultural references, which he unifies with decorative patterns, paint effects and harmonized color. There are references to Haitian and African cultures (the sequined Haitian bottle lamp, the sculptures) as well as to African American culture (the cropped issue of Ebony magazine on the table).
The dance itself also evokes a romantic scene from “Killer of Sheep,” the celebrated 1977 film by the African American director Charles Burnett. In an interview, Marshall once described this scene (which unfolds to the accompaniment of the song “This Bitter Earth,” performed by Dinah Washington) as “probably one of the most powerful moments — for me — in film history” because of its poignant combination of pleasure, yearning and pain.
Paintings don’t emit sound. So in “Slow Dance,” Marshall helps us imagine a little mood music, and maybe also the slow sway of the couple’s movements, with a musical stave. Curving like a banner across the top part of the painting, it includes the notes and lyrics from “Baby, I’m for Real,” a soulful song, tailor-made for seduction, composed by Marvin Gaye and his first wife, Anna Gordy Gaye, for the Originals.
This whole painting is not quite for real (or at least that’s the inference) in the same way that every seduction is a little bit of theater, a little bit of motivated deception. And what of it?
Well, it’s funny, to begin with. The fictions we deploy to get what we want.
It’s also (and I’m not proposing to solve the painting, I promise; it’s just my rational mind briefly fizzing before the inevitable fade-out) Marshall doing what he often does. In the same way that novelists use the device of the unreliable narrator to make you think twice about what you’re reading, Marshall is drawing attention to the artifice of his painting and to what might be missing from his fiction.
Are his images depictions of reality? Or are they aspirational? If there’s a gap between the two, how much hope, how much irony and how much pathos exist in that gap?