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.