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CHARLES GAIN ES: ¾'hen I was researching Dieter Roelstraete's 2012 inter . . wi.

th
view
Youfior this conversation, one work you discussed that stood outfior me was He1r
. 1ooms
and Accessories (2002), because it addresses the idea of art and activism.1 This is a
photographic triptych of lockets containing close-up pictures of women who were present
at a ly nching in the Jim Crow South. Your discussion was about how certain figures might
be interpreted. For example, images of white women suggest the stereotype of the black
sexual predator, while the metaphor of hanging is provoked by the necklaces themselves.
For me, this raises questions about your thoughts on art and activism. For example, what
do you expect when you raise these kinds of issues in works of art?

KERRY JAM ES MARSHALL: Well, I guess the simplest way is to start with a
question like, does one look at a work like that politically because of its relationship to
history and politics? You can see how doing a thing like that can have an activist quality
to it But in terms of what that work is supposed to do, I never think of artworks as
having a quality that's intended to mobilize people to action. They don't make people
do things. But they do put questions in the mind of a viewer that they may not have
entertained before. Everyone has in the back of his or her mind the idea that America
was built by violence. But we never really think about how. The standard model is
that white supremacy is only the guys in white sheets. You never really think about
how completely embedded in the culture as a whole this notion of white supremacy
is, and how everybody else's relationship to it, the people who were in the sheets and
the people who might never have put one on, but benefitted from the effects of this
terror, helped to legitimize lynching as a part of the natural order. That photograph,
from which I isolated the women's faces, is often reproduced. It's a lynching that took
place in the 1930s, in Marion, Indiana. It was a double lynching that was supposed to
be a triple lynching. So when I did Heirlooms and Accessories, one of the things that
1 wanted to remind people of - and my art-as-activism is more like a reminder - is
that there are angles and dimensions of history that are products of the relationships
between the powerful and
the powerless that people don't quite consider. If you allow
tbem to, people will alw
ays pretend not to know that these bygone events form our

INTERVIEW
current reality. What was important to ml' about that photograph was not only the
crowd of people who were there, but also its generational span, and that it wasn't just
men who perpetrated that violence but also women, who were often a causal factor.
So I focus on three women who happened to be looking out at the camera. There's
one man in that photograph who's looking out at the camera too. He's the man who's
pointing at the bodies on the tree. He has a Hitler moustache. But if I'd focused
on him, it would have been too obvious; it would have diverted attention from the
ordinary folks who help perpetuate this type of violence. Those three women:
a young girl who can't be more than fifteen or sixteen, a girl who's got to be about
twenty or twenty-two, and an elderly woman who's in her fifties or sixties, represent
a generational span that was really important because it shows how structures of
power are inherited; how power is transmitted generationally, from the men, through
the women, to the culture.

The title Heirlooms and Accessories has multiple implications. An heirloom is a thing
that's handed down. Accessories are add-ons or adornments that enhance the spectacle,
or yourself. Everyone who's present at that event is an ·accessory' to the crime. The
piece is constructed to be like a jewel box; that's why the frame has a groove and there's
a strip of rhinestones that goes all the way around the frame. The idea is for the object
to embody the concept of Heirlooms and Accessories on all of those levels. I wanted to
combine the experiences of repulsion and attraction; you're repelled and enticed at the
same time.

GAIN ES: One could compare this work to Adrian Piper's 1989 work titled Free #2,
which includes an image of a lynching.1 Her interest seems to have been to use art to
confront racism directly by aggressively challenging white people's sense of identity, which
is directly linked to the practice of lynching, a more psychological approach than yours.

MARSHALL: I deliberately take a different approach, maybe in part because my


experiences in the world have taught me that a direct confrontational approach does
more to shut down examination of a subject or an issue than it does to compel a
spectator to engage with it fully. Confrontation is nagging and irritating, so I've always
felt that a certain oblique angle at a thing is more effective.

GAIN ES: Certainly in terms of an individual work of art, it's hard to establish proof of
a cause-and-effect relationship that shows that art can affect social change. But maybe
the hope is that collectively something can happen. For example, the memories of lynching
that you bring up may not by itself result in social change, but as part of a collective of
voices where others are also addressing these memories, maybe social change can happen.

MARSHALL: That's a part of the problem. For most of us, the images we encounter
of things like lyn ching are sensational, but pretty remote. Most of us haven't been
eyewitnesses to any of those events. And so what we're doing is constructing an idea
of what these things are from other people's stories and images. What's produced
collectively is inadequate for making anything more than generalizations. I grew up
in South Central Los Angeles. We lived in Watts, but we moved out of the Nickerson
Garden Projects there before the Watts riots took place. So when the riots broke out in
1965, we were living on 48th Street between McKinley and Avalon. We'd heard on the
news that the thing that caused the riot was a traffic stop on Imperial Highway, in which
the man who was stopped was riding with his mother and that the police had roughed up
his mother. We heard that this police violence sparked the riot; the crowd that gathered
around this incident became violent, which later turned out not to be true.

GAIN ES: I get your point, in terms of what fuels events; there's a difference between
what we might individually know from actual experience and the idea of collective
knowledge, which is a combination of direct experiences and collective assumptions that
are often wrong.

10 INTERVIEW
I was wondering if he played a role in your discovery of what you wanted to do as
an artist?

MARSHALL: Well, it had something to do with it. Ies funny, I was going to say
'indirectly', but actually it's a combination, directly and indirectly, because I first saw
his work in a class I took at Otis with George de Groat. It was a drawing class for junior
high school kids, and he showed us images from a book on White [ Images of Dignity:
the Drawings of Charles ¾'hite]. 3 I took the book and copied an image of Frederick
Douglass. Looking through this book I noticed a couple of things about White's
work. One was that all the murals he did were about history and included historical
subjects like Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth. They were also
in individual pictures he did; there were several images of Harriet Tubman, a couple
of Frederick Douglass, a few of John Brown, too. I was familiar with these figures
because they showed up in history books. This is why, for me, White's work was about
history. I didn't think of history as politics, really. White's work accounted for the past
in the same way that other historical moments are accounted for through art, such
as Goya's The 3rd of May and Picasso's Guernica, as well as the historical paintings
of David, Gericault and Delacroix. Not only that, but the entire legacy of classical
Renaissance painting was for me based on reading the biblical or mythical subjects
as historical. Growing up you understand how religion could be thought of as real,
which made those stories history. Jesus narratives like the Stations of the Cross, the
Virgin Birth, Rembrandt's The Blinding of Samson came from the Bible. So it seemed
like painting history was what artists did. My whole concept of what it meant to be
an artist was formed around the idea that you picked subjects that were historical and
meaningful so that people could derive meaning in their lives from the things they saw
in paintings. That's really how I began to understand what it meant to be an artist.

GAINES: The reason I was thinking about that in relation to the political subject is
that if you think about the kind of works in history that you just described, it's reasonable
to conclude that there's a difference between the political and the historicai that you're
talking about a person or an event who's importance to history has been established, not
an ideology that's still under scrutiny. But if you also think about the history of portrait
painting and genre painting, the Barbizon Schooi Courbet, where the life and experience
of ordinary people became the subjects, the difference between history and politics is less
clear because it's not just about the historical moment, but also the present moment. In
relation to modern painting, classical too, but particularly modern, reflecting on figures
like Douglass is seen most often politically because what they've done in the world is still
part of a continuing conversation. The issues haven't been settled by history. So within this
framework, works of art may reflect on issues or causes that still have social significance.
I'm suggesting that a historical genre such as the portrait can become political when the
subject is black because the idea of the black subject is still unresolved.

MARSHALL: I never thought of it that way. Also, we're talking about when I'm
thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, when I'm just forming my idea of what it means to
be an artist. I don't know what grade it was, probably third or fourth, when they took
you to the school library- that is, when every elementary school had a library. And
then they would take you on a field trip to the public library. Before then, you have no
concept of anything, not of history, politics, sociology or race or anything. That stuff is
all out there, but you don't have a framework to fit it into that makes it comprehensible
to you.

GAIN ES: So your entry into the political was through history. When did it occur to you,
the idea of the black subject?

INTERVIEW 17
,
MARSHALL: That didn t occur to me until I found out about White, because
I simply accepted the majority of images l saw in books as representative of humanity,
as the norm.

GAINES: At a certain point, as you developed, as you worked through the idea that
painting history was what artists did, you recognized the absence of the black subject
in the history of painting. And at that point you understood it as a certain political space.

MARSHALL: That really didn,t take shape with any kind of clarity until 1980, when
I made the pivotal painting A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self. This
was when it started to look like there was something that could be done with the
black figure, that it could be used to explore ideas that are not only relevant to picture
making by itself but also to convey some of these ideas that I'd been developing about
where black people fit in. Before then, apart from self-portraits, which I'd do as an
exercise, I was doing still-lifes and paintings of inanimate objects in order to figure
out how to paint. I copied White's work because I'd read in books how artists became
artists: that they copied the work of a master and learned to make pictures that way.
I used White for that reason. The images were appealing to me, but I didn't see them
as oriented towards a politics of race.

GAIN ES: So the issue of representation was something that evolved more slowly.

MARSHALL: It really came into focus with that one painting.

GAIN ES: J just saw the Degas show at MoMA. There was an interesting comment by
Degas in which he talked about copying artwork. He described a series of exercises where
he did a drawing and copied it. And then he did a drawing of the copy and copied that.
I found this comment to be one of the earliest examples of linking technique with style,
where the analysis of style is a critical assessment of technique. Therefore copying for you
revealed White's thoughts, leading to representation, as well as his skills.

MARSHALL: This is one of great functions of that book. You can see an evolutionary
transformation in the way he was making an image in the beginning and the way he
was making it towards the end. You understood clearly that things don't have to remain
the same. At the same time there's a consistency, which I understood as a product
of conscious decisions about style, about regulating change. The other thing that
was important was a 1971 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the
first exhibition they did of White's work. There were three black visual artists in that
exhibition: Charles White, David Hammons and Timothy Washington. I went to see
that show dozens of times. They were so radically different from each other but equally
powerful. That was an important moment for me, too.

18 IN TEAVIEW
and mixed-media stuff. The Ellison book became the trigger that sent me back to the
figure. I understood on some level that the abandonment of the black figure was a kind
of loss and that I'd surrendered to a power structure rather than try ing to chalJenge
and overcome it in some way. And so A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former
Selfbecame an instrument to solve what I thought might be some deficiencies in some
of the work that White was doing, as well as the work that some other bJack painters
were doing in their use of the figure; I used the power of abstractio n to solve these
deficiencies in the way the figure was represented. I wanted to use all of the colour
complexity that I'd learned from Clayberger, but to keep it close to black history,
culture and the subjectivity of White's work. So A Portrait of the Artist as a S hadow
of his Former Se(fwas a way of starting at a zero degree because it was flat, it was
schematic, but it was bu ilt on all of the stuff I'd learned about picture making from my
teachers at Otis that was opposite to the way a number of black artists approached the
picture; the only way they could stay with the black figure was by compromising it, by
either fragmenting it, or otherwise distorting it, by making it green, blue or yellow, or
some other way to deflect the idea of its blackness.

GAINES: T his is a jewel, what you've just articulated about the issue of colour,
abstraction and content. I'm reminded of a panel discussion in the 1960s sponsored,
I believe by Artscanada, titled 'Black: 5 Two of the participants were Ad Reinhardt
and Cecil Taylor.

MARSHALL: You were there?

GAINES: No, I wish! But there's an essay available that recounts the event. I heard about
it from my friend the late Terry Adkins. We were trying to think about how to reconstitute
this panel and restage the event. T he panel was about blackness and the colour black; the
purpose was to explore the political and aesthetic meaning of the word in order to question
the saliency of political ideas in 1960s modernism. Anyway, Cecil Taylor and Ad Reinhardt
got into this big argument. As I said, the subject was simply 'black' - it didn't tell you
black what. For Reinhardt of course, the word 'black' referenced a universal idea because
black and absence were for him trans-lingual. 'Black' expressed a kind of universalized
experience operating outside the domain of language. For Taylor, black was steeped
in language; it couldn't be considered except as a metaphor because of his experience
of dealing with it politically. One idea that came out of this debate was that the term
provoked a binary that ultimately placed constraints on our thinking: how the meaning
of the term is informed by one's experience. Even though Ad was making the argument
that it was trans-linguistic, only a white person could entertain such a pure notion.
T he suggestion was that its racial connotation is irrelevant to ideas of art. Cecil found in
Ad's commentary the kind of ideological thinking that perpetuates racism. And so your
project seems to be an interesting attempt to describe how the trans-linguistic aesthetic
properties of painting and the linguistic properties of content merge and come together,
to debunk the binary.

JNTERIIIEW c?S
MARSHALL: When I made that picture, I think I understood for the first time that
the image in it functioned linguistically. Which is why l always said that the idea of
blackness operated rhetorically. This materially black figure has to be situated within
the larger context as a linguistic figure amongst other linguistic figures, or as a pictorial
figure within the context of other pictorial elements. Take, for example, the essay
Carter Ratcliff wrote for Art in America some time in the 1980s, 'The Short Life of
the Sincere Stroke'.6 He talks about the way that every mark in a picture is a linguistic
character in the sense that we deploy these marks to construct certain meanings and
relationships. One of the reasons why the figure works so effectively for me is because
I'm thinking of it in those terms, as an abstract linguistic figure and at the same time
as an absolute sign or symbol of something. Thafs why rm able to continue working
with the figure in ways that others haven't. I understood that language structure
continuously modifies meaning; it never disappears. It simply finds other contexts in
which the figure can be used. But recognizing language's role in those terms imposes a
certain amount of responsibility. Whenever communication is an issue, a certain kind
of clarity is important, so you have to be responsible for the way you use language.
That's why it takes me so long to make my pictures. When I insert a figure into a
painting space, I have to consider all of the things that it means and then construct,
edit and revise in order to reach its maximum effect so that blackness becomes a noun,
not an adjective.

GAIN ES: Well put.

MARSHALL: I can contextualize the figure differently from picture to picture; in that
sense the possibilities are infinite. Ellison's idea of presence/absence allowed me to see
the black figure as a useful construct. This helps me think of the image abstractly, to
engage a certain kind of complexity that starts to layer this history onto the figure. To
think of black chromatically means that black itself becomes more complex because it's
a colour with many different chromatic values. I'm at a point now where I have about
seven variations on that black. If you look at one of these by itself, it looks like it's just
black, but if you stack them up on top of each other you start to see how chromatically
different they are. Initially I was just doing a basic black when I was doing the flat
things, and if there was variation I was trying to use surface modulations sometimes,
to create a density that suggests volume. But that was before I really started to take
account of the fact that ivory black is not the same as carbon black, and carbon black is
not the same as iron-oxide black, or Mars black.

There's a way that this concept of difference operates with blackness, but not in
whiteness. There's this notion that blackness contains a full spectrum of skin tonalities,
from looking completely white, like Walter White or Homer Plessey, to somebody
from the Sudan who looks as black as that couch over there. [Pointing].

INTERVIEW i!II
I'm always looking for ways to ask the question, 'Where are those black people who
are black in the way Solomon Northup describes it in Twelve Years a Slave?' There's
a scene in the book where he first arrives at the plantation after being kidnapped and
he talks about a young boy, maybe fourteen or fifteen, who comes running out of the
house, and he's laughing at the group of slaves. And he describes him as 'blacker than
any crow.' What is that? Are we talking about a metaphor or a forensic description?
That question hangs there in place. He describes a woman who was on the boat with
him as being 'jetty black'. These questions of perception and reality, of extremes, come
into play and you must ask this question while believing that black people come in all
these complexions, from white all the way to black. What's the frame of reference that
singularizes such a range? So that's the figure-in-the-extreme that I paint. It critiques
the panorama, or at least brings it into question.

GAIN ES: There's a facilitation of a certain agency in making a category out of skin
colour. This goes back to our discussion about a polar framework where on one side
we have an intellectual idea and on the other a sensible experience that the idea may
inadequately represent. So you're questioning the desire, the purpose of creating categories
for the purpose of agency. If we want to create a politics around blackness, we have to
produce it as an idea. But at the same time, the hyper-simplification that act produces
in some cases can be used against it.

MARSHALL: Right, and that's why, when I started out, the notion of the figure
as rhetorical device seemed to be the appropriate way to begin to create a framework
in which the figure can have a certain kind of utility.

GAIN ES: In A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self, there's the
black figure on a black field, which is the classical figure-ground relationship. As well as
being a formal compositional problem of painting, it also serves to address civil issues of
se
representation. The seamless way that that you negotiate this complexity through the u
of the colour black I think is pretty good!

e figure
MARSHALL: [laughter] Well, I'm working at it. In my view, the flight from th
ab s nce
had nothing to do with us as black artists, because we were d e al.mg WI·th an
e

w w ere
. .m th e art world'
. 1·1zatwn e
from the get-go. Because of the history of margma
of o s e1ves.
. . of an I"deaI.im age
u r
already dealing with a lack of authority in the p roJectlon

30 INTERVIEW
one that ha� real con!>t"quen,es
Surrendering to the power of an abstraction, even
won't likely haw your best intere-st�
in practice, puts you at the mercy of people who
in mind.

GAIN ES: This brings me back to your use of history, not only in terms of the compl.exity
of unfolding an idea but as a way of commenting on history itself, which CJJn also be sun
as a reflective gesture.

MARSHALL: Yes, it is. To me, presence has an absolute ,·alue in it� own right. The fact
of existence, the fact of its being there, the fact of its being a,·ailablt - 1ha1 br il.St'lf has
a fundamental value. And so when I comment on history, essrntially what I'm �,·ing
is that this idea is a fact of history and as such it has ,·alue because J\·t" comiderc-d it
and made it available for somebody else to consider. btablishing �mdhing li a fact
in the world has value. Responding to the lack of recognition of othen to an idc-a, or
even lo the demonstration of an interest, reinforces a�� of J)O"'erlcuncu and �,k
of self-worth in a narrative that you can aMign value to as wrll as anybody cb.t". I look
at the world as a series of compcting values. In this resp«t, ifs a w.lltc of time to be
overly invested in how somebody clse constructs the S)�lnn of v.illJ(' .lround the thin�
they're interested in. A part of your obligation is not to appeal to the better nature of
an oppositional figure to set aside their interest.\ and desires. but to more completely
and forcefully assert your own.

GAINES: I understand what you mean when you say ide4U them�/ws comprte in tM
world by establishing a presence. B111 I'm trying to conjidn how an idra can be produu,I
that doesn't come out of a binary system of comprting intnnts. I'm hard preucd to do so.
Concepts are formed within oppositional framnvork.s, which begs the quntion about h111t•
an idea originates. To me, ideas are dial«tical comtruc-ts and anybody who's im-nthl in
ideas is involved in a system of dialectics. Black. prople, hown-rr, haw this extra pn,l,km
with dialectical systems, where their oppositional relationship reifin a systrm of opprruwn
around the ideas of race and power, where the doors of simply establishing a p�n« atY"
close d to them, which might suggest there's an unfair playingfiehl in dwmual
stn,g;gln
where the opposing sides are supposed to haw an equal opportunit)' to sucurd. It's a
competition; someone has to win thr argumenr, which separutN fan from opinion. Thr
question is, really, especially in matters of ra,c,
is rhis playing fidd sta,:W?

MARSHALL: But I think the playing


field is atwa� sta(:ktd, cxistentwly, for C'WT)-body.

G A_I NE S: In terms of the formation


of ideas, do cenain groups ha,� mon- pott-n! I'm
trying to U11ders1and
this idea of f>OlWT or autonomous cmpowrrrnent with rnp«t to tltr
formarion of idtas, where in one way or anotht'r, wirhin the diala.-ii<a
l fie-Id. )'t'U .ihvay;.
0

operating rta<tivtly and


rt'

rtfk<tively.
denied. Now, the reason we're anxious about the diversity of the field is because we've
never tended to the necessary practice of speculating about other ways that things
can be, beyond trying to just become part of the club. In my practice I read, I look
at and I study many things; the reason is that the amalgamation of all those things
might generate a phenomenon that's configured in a way that you think you've never
seen before. And because you're approaching the whole project self-consciously and
strategically, a greater potential exists for a new thought that can assume authority
within the dialogue.

INTERVIEW 45