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How much is custom family portrait painting?

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Dominique Blain’s first solo exhibition

This show is Dominique Blain’s first solo exhibition in the U.K. It opens up (almost literally) in a particularly threatening way, where, at the entrance to a long, narrow gallery, is positioned her 1991 piece Probe, whose acerbic combination of deadly threat from shotgun and rifle muzzles, and intensive surveillance from binoculars, spyglasses and camera lenses, leaves the viewer with a distinctly unpleasant taste in the mouth. This piece is indicative of the stance that Blain’s installations assume – a critique of the Western European urge towards colonialism and imperialism. Looking at the reverse side of this installation, the viewer becomes the aggressor, looking down the rifle barrels at an imaginary quarry.

More poignant still is the opposition of the two parts of Details (1992) on walls either side of the narrowest part of the gallery. On the right is Details 1, which ostensibly shows eight innocuous looking portraits of African and Oriental workers, timeless photographs, whose poor quality is symptomatic of the snapshot. However, when the viewer examines the corresponding photographs in Details 2, opposite, he or she is confronted by the uncanny, for here we see that the portraits in Details 1 are in fact “details” of these photographs showing those workers performing demeaning tasks at the behest of their white colonial masters, bearing them in litters or pulling them in rickshaws, or simply in groups, carrying their masters on their shoulders. No longer innocuous, they could be exhibits of evidence in the case against colonial oppression. These images serve as sharp reminders of the arrogance which accompanied colonialism, and the contemporary feel of these photographs is a warning that these are tendencies which we could topple back into at any time.

Historicity dictates that at the time of such colonial expansion, in the nineteenth century, the kneejerk reaction that Blain’s sombre satire represents, would have been unthinkable, patriotic fervour would have destroyed it at birth, so it is very sobering to reflect, retrospectively, on the evils that were perpetrated in order to get where we are now. It is to be hoped that our emotional response to these works will prove prescriptive for our future actions.

Blain is a master of the optical pejorative, no comment is needed to qualify these damning visual statements whose conscience-stinging lash makes for uncomfortable viewing. The viewer searching for redemption here is out of luck, no palliative is on hand to ease a guiltridden mind, Blain puts the boot in no uncertain terms. Ninety pairs of boots, suspended from the ceiling, make their assertive statement in her best-known installation, Missa (1993), which in its normal format is reminiscent of a phalanx of spectral soldiers marking time, awaiting orders, subordinate to both hierarchy and time – this piece is usually shown in a square formation – here is elongated, front to rear, an army on the march, its aggression on the loose, ready to strike if, when and where required. Each pair of boots has its right foot raised, a moment frozen in its block of silence, the sound of an army on the march is spine chilling, the silence of this one is eerie.

Imperialism, racism, sexism, fascism, all come under the scrutiny of Blain’s analyses, chewed over then spat out as targets for her fiercely satirical works, she gives no quarter. She juxtaposes the incongruous in her Untitled (1987) where a fresh cigar, an unspent bullet, and an extended lipstick are offered up not only as visual similes but as symbols of greed, power and sex, three components of the capitalist engine that propels the imperialist machine that drives Western “progress” that galvanizes Blain into action.

Japan Apologize (1993) is fortuitously topical, as in the same week as this show opened, the Japanese Prime Minister Mr. Hashimoto made a formal apology to Britain for the atrocities perpetrated upon British prisoners-of-war in World War II. This piece is a masterpiece of paradox, showing as it does, through the presentation of a traditional kimono, the cultured, civilized face of Japan which, even the greatest leap of faith, cannot reconcile with the brutality meted out by her soldiers during the Second World War. The crux of this image, however, is that the kimono, being empty, is making a hollow gesture, its open skirts revealing nothing but a void. The doubts that beset the viewer here, reflect those expressed by British ex-P.O.W.’s this week.

The evidence supplied by the cross-cultural references in Untitled (1987) leave us standing accused. The narratives which spring out of the image of two U.S. offduty servicemen flanking a seminaked tribeswomen outside her hut, are all tainted by the tawdry. This woman, the subject of exploitation, whatever its degree, is as much a trophy as the zebra-skin covered stool which stands on the gallery floor in front of her image on the wall. The opposition here of degenerate sophistication and primitive naivete offers a cameo which is a distillation of colonial abuse.

Avoiding the overt pornography of violence, which is present only by implication, Blain’s contextualization of otherwise prosaic images and objects to produce the requisite effect, i.e., razor-sharp critique, is both deft and incisive. It is always chastening to see one’s culture depicted as the “other,” and, by confusing and cross-referencing our accepted stereotypes of the domestic and the military, by awakening us to the ubiquity of the trappings of state power and control in the contemporary world – to which we have become oblivious – she rings the alarm bells, shaking us out of lethargy and into the realization that yes, perhaps it has got something to do with us.

The Garden Project

If The Garden Project attempts to shatter illusions with ersatz idealism, Marshall’s most recent work, four paintings collectively titled Souvenirs (1997-8), pushes for another realignment: to place cultural figures of the civil rights era into the pantheons of high art. Or, at the very least, give inclusive homage to the known and anonymous who have shaped the artist’s history (and America’s) over the past decades. It is a grand gesture that only slightly veils Marshall’s larger critique of questioning how history designates a few to stardom and muffles recognition of many others, and he has gone to his most allegorical extreme to do this. The four paintings are a jumble of souvenir kitsch and gumball cheapness with overriding references to the early Renaissance (Fra Angelico’s linear space and biblical straight men, in particular). In Souvenir I (1997) a living room stands in for the church and Archangel Gabriel, a black figure with glitter-dust wings, delivers his message in the form of a boutique of flowers. Dominating the right side of the painting is a velvet souvenir banner with the halo heads of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King registering as a proxy for the holy trinity. Marshall presents the lesser-known players of the civil rights era at the top of the canvas, floating in a bed of silvery clouds like putti. Malcolm X is there, but most are not as familiar, like the four girls killed during the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.

Like The Garden Project, Souvenirs has an edge. Things are not quite as they seem. He has leveled out the playing field and determined that nothing is sacrosanct: art history butts up with razzle-dazzle, the divine with suburbia, white with African American history. Culture moves into the realm of politics, and the embracing question is who has the authority – or taste, property, justice – to determine the heroes. Popular culture does, as Marshall suggests, by showing the immorality of the Official Triad as subjects that have saturated every tier of the market, including the kitsch. In the accepted reverence for the Kennedys and King – American mythmakers for both African Americans and whites – the possibility of others who were no less heroic vanishes in their wake.

Even when the paintings are unwrapped from its symbolic packaging, there is still much more left. These are tamer works stylistically, more serene, and the drama more muted to something closer to the frictionless sheen of a magazine spread. Marshall’s usual brushstroke pastiche and layers of assemblage are near to absent. In Souvenirs II, III and IV (1997), he has removed colour altogether and gone monochromatic, like a pre-Technicolor television screen held stagnant. The living rooms – of no particular period in anywhere America – seem radiant in their near entropy. As in Souvenir I, the names of the famous mingle with the arcane and float down the canvases like nightclub playbills: soul singer and songwriter Otis Redding, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, singer Ida Cox, folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, and Hollywood starlet Dorothy Dandridge, among them.

It is chancy work to the extreme, since Marshall courts the possibility of turning his symbolic saturation into the decorative, and then hams it up more with a glitter-dust curtain fringe running along the bottom like a carnival backdrop. But he escapes the pictorial by the peering eyes of his angels. Dressed in a mourning suit (one assumes) the foreground figure in Souvenir I is bent at the waist and looking out over his shoulder at us, the whites of his eyes reveal such a doleful gaze that the entire painting comes together at that very point. An otherwise static environment nears a sense of movement and liveliness that is entirely human and compassionate. Marshall is only being half-glib by not making it difficult to miss that the archangel is, in part, a self-portrait; the coy messenger invited into the white-dominated hierarchy of contemporary art has brought with him some uninvited guests.

Marshall’s exaggeration

Marshall’s exaggeration is a process of tipping the scales in the opposite direction, erasing the preconception that the oppression that seems inherent in the projects has undermined the reality of the life these places contain, a kind of human resilience that is continually present despite the conditions. It takes Marshall’s experience of knowing these locations explicitly and his mastery of balancing the ironic and comic that keeps his works from dipping into the realm of story-book corniness. The self-referential nods are just too acute to be mistaken as anything other than sharp and sardonic jolts meant to debase stereotypes.

Within Marshall’s set-ups of urban idealism are his matte black figures, placed almost always front and centre. They are the most striking aspect of his work – both visually and metaphorically – and cannot be pinned down to any one interpretation. As painterly devices, their solidity and darkness makes them indeterminable as subjects (or objects) that are neither deep nor shallow, a kind of static space that sets off the action and intimacy of everything else happening around them. What is confrontational about them, in the similar gracious manner in which Schjeldahl talked of Golub’s work, is their rhetorical function of producing an effect but without eliciting any one response. They are archetypes in that regard (a reversal of Ralph Ellison’s metaphoric invisible man) and they carry the load of representing every vision of African American imaginable, from the “Tom Show” blackface minstrel to the sports idol, criminal, gangsta’ rapper, celebrity and fetish object, even the contemporary interracial tensions between African Americans that are often the subject of Spike Lee films become infused. The figures embody not only historical and white perceived stereotypes but also tap at the fear many African Americans have of Sambo-like images being out there and in the public domain. Marshall, of course, has encountered from viewers every conceivable interpretation possible, and the responses cannot be grouped. He takes racial stereotyping as a given, then flirts with it, gambling that his viewers will be able to interpret the fictional truth of his figures’ matte black uniformity. Similar to his use of idealized settings, the extreme blackness is a way of revealing human complexities by manipulating stereotypes that are meant to conceal.

Kerry James Marshall’s inclusion

If Chicago painter Kerry James Marshall’s inclusion in Documenta X as one of only two painters (the other being Lari Pittman), and his widely-noted exclusion from the Whitney’s “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” exhibition (1994) and 1995 Biennial indicate anything, it is that Marshall’s paintings are not easily placed within a determined curatorial framework.

There are reasons for this. Marshall’s paintings are monumental, figurative, and have a flattened staged presence that brings the paintings right up close. His sense for composition and balance, of knowing what to leave in and what to take out, is one of his strongest skills which he has developed after years of working on small collage works throughout the 1970s. He has allowed what he learned from his teacher and friend, social-realist painter Charles White, from his student years at the Otis Art Institute, and what he picked up while working with African American folklorists, to incubate for an extended period before turning to painting, and all the while recognizing that to take on the medium requires an exceptional knowledge of art history and an individual philosophy that can successfully find a place within that canon.

The overlaps of these earlier influences are evident in Marshall’s use of symbolism, a narrative format and grand scale. But it is his obdurate goal to bring the socio-historical terrain of his own life to the foreground. He is himself like a human map of the civil rights movement. Born in the most segregated city in the South, Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, and raised in Los Angeles – his family arrived in Watts two years before the 1965 riots – he has been a Chicagoan for the past ten years. The influences have not been diverse, at least not in the way Marshall has methodically distilled them. He has determined that nothing really separates the past from the present, or the lowbrow from the high. All of which adds up to an independence of mind that makes his work assuredly self-contained, informed and within the modes of postmodernism but not necessarily reliant on them.

The closest comparison to Marshall, in my mind, is the stand-alone Leon Golub whose paintings of torturers and soldiers of the Vietnam War Peter Schjeldahl once described as being able to lead us, with courtesy, into the socio-politics of his subject rather than “rubbing our noses” in a political agenda (Village Voice, October 26, 1982). Schjeldahl added that Golub’s scale, framing and frontality meant coming face-to-face with paintings that were able to consume a room – and, therefore, consume us. Marshall’s paintings are also very much like that.

In 1995 he produced a series of large-scale paintings called The Garden Project. The works are based on housing projects in Los Angeles and Chicago that are generally perceived as testaments of debauched urban renewal (or “Negro removal” as they were lampooned back in the 1960s and 70s). In Marshall’s paintings, however, the settings are ultra-romanticized. Songbirds flit through clear blue skies, sunbeams stream outward, garden beds are immaculate and in full bloom, and smiling, happy children peddle down carless roads on their bikes, a dog jogging alongside. These are hardly the images one conceives of as an accurate depiction of housing projects (though possibly what developers had envisioned when they added “gardens” to many of the project names as they were being built – Nickerson Gardens in L.A., and Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens and Wentworth Gardens, among them). That officialized euphemism of an implied paradise seems a nominal, almost irrelevant point, but it is where Marshall has leaped from to create five monumental paintings for the series.

Watts 1963 (1995) is a painting of Nickerson Gardens, one of the projects where Marshall lived when he was a boy, and among the fistfuls of daisies are three children dressed immaculately in summer gear – white shorts, white sneakers, hair bobbles and flip-flops. Obscured by palm trees and a banner that sails across the upper portion of the painting, which reads “There’s more of everything,” are the low-slung project dwellings. In another work, “our town” is written in red college-jersey lettering across the top, and in Better Homes, Better Gardens (1994) a teenage couple stroll along a footpath oblivious to their idyllic urban setting. In all this synthetic deception, each painting becomes a psychological portrait tightly wound by Marshall’s ability to fill but never clutter his paintings. The colours run intense and are mixed here and there with green, yellow and blue passages – dots, blanks, smears and drips of paint. Areas of painted overlays, collage and signage underscore a multiplicity of symbolic meanings. It is sentimentality overblown, the yellow ribbons that will bring the boys home from the Persian Gulf War.