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.