When have you ever seen a painting of a black person that seems self-satisfied?” asked Kerry James Marshall in a 2014 interview. “Not sure I have,” his interlocutor responded.1 Self-satisfaction has to be the strangest kind of ordinary to be absent from view, but the dearth of images of black people in common subjective states is a general failing of Western art, where stereotyping and idealization, if not total omission, are more the norm. Marshall has been tackling this problem for decades, mainly in painting, but from the very beginning, under the influence of his mentor, Charles W. White, he has occasionally made prints that beautifully augment his mission. Perhaps most impressive is his grand, untitled 1998 woodcut, 8 feet high and 50 feet long, that shows a group of figures relaxing in a stylish home, as if enjoying an informal brunch on their day off. Created in just three exemplars, the 12-panel print is sadly underknown, though a detail graces the cover of a 2014 monograph on the artist, also published by Ludion.2
Marshall’s recent Satisfied Man is more modest in scale if not effect. A crisp, handsome print, it depicts a man in a relaxed, tilting posture, arms crossed, with a broad smile on his face. Behind him is a shadow—likely his own, cast onto an ambiguous surface—or perhaps the shadowy figure of a second person. Publicity for the image reiterates Marshall’s desire “to address what he calls a ‘crisis of under-representation,’” to create “positive images” of black people.3 One cannot help but wonder, however, about this particular “positive” image. The man’s expression is open, to be sure, but his hoodie and self-protective gesture generate associations that cannot be avoided in the era of Black Lives Matter. The rough, chiseled facture of Satisfied Man recalls that of German Expressionist prints, so that its very look is freighted with emotion. And then there’s that darkness looming behind the figure—the cast shadow (or second figure) and its constituent metaphor. If it’s a shadow, one might recall a very specific German Expressionist project—Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s 1915 illustrations of Peter Schlemihl’s Wondrous Story, Adalbert von Chamisso’s tale of a man who sells his shadow to the devil. One can’t imagine this fellow selling his shadow exactly, but the devil of racism inexorably lurks. The man might be self-satisfied, but the world does not rest easy around him. And so his ordinary state carries an extraordinary power, and with it turns a historical style into a contemporary challenge.
- Interview with Martin Coomer, Time Out London, Oct. 23, 2014. http://www.timeout.com/london/art/kerry-james-marshall-interview-when-have-you-ever-seen-a-painting-of-a-black-person-that-seems-self-satisfied, accessed 1 January 2016.
- Okwui Enwezor et al., Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff (Antwerp: Ludion, 2014).
- The publisher’s website: http://www.ludion.be/en/prints/satisfied-man, accessed 2 January 2016.