Vignette #2

Kerry James Marshall


Painting, 186 x 155 cm.
Materials: acrylic, plexiglass

Collection: Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.

During the first decade of this century, Marshall makes a series of paintings under the collective title Vignette. For this he reverts to smaller formats and a new genre. The paintings are exercises in restraint; there is nothing hard or disturbing to impinge upon the sober character of the surface.

The vignettes present Afro-Americans in romantic scenes – they play hide-and-seek, dance in the meadow, walk hand-in-hand, etc. The figures in this series are both idealized and rather flattened. They suggest ideals of a better future, even as they remind us of Black stereotypes as constructed by the media. These Edens evoke nostalgic sentiments, but for times that never existed.

The title “Vignette” refers to the term that came into use in the 18th century to describe photographs with a decorative border that pictured a certain person or situation. Marshall studied Fragonard and Boucher, the entire Rococo period, where pleasure and excess reined. He adopts the themes and concentrates on the romantic in an urban or suburban environment. But Marshall combines these subjects with the soberness of grisaille, in order "not to give in to all the promises of this decadent genre".

The series focuses on the historical lack of Afro-American representations in Western art history: “By adopting characteristics of specific periods and styles, I would like for my paintings to call attention to the absence of works by Black artists in those moments where none is represented. The new paintings, entitled Vignette, make the absence very clear.” Marshall makes use of a discrete stylistic parody in order to represent the hypothetical emotional life of the Black population, as if they too could lead a life of romantic, pastoral bliss, just as their slave masters had in the past enjoyed.

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