Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955)
Untitled (policeman), 2015
Displayed at the New York Museum of Modern Art
Kerry James Marshall painted this image of a policeman perched on the hood of his cruiser in 2015. That was about two years after the acquittal of Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin, an event that ignited the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Marshall’s policeman is both monumental and acutely enigmatic. Evidently, he is on the job. But his pose looks relaxed. His expression is dispassionate, unimpressed.
“You can’t underestimate the value of a figure in a picture that seems self-satisfied,” Marshall once said. The idea holds especially, he added, in the context of African American history, which is “somehow compromised and always traumatic.”
Marshall was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1955 and grew up in South Central Los Angeles. His work is certainly political; but he is an artist, not a propagandist. His paintings do many things, only one of which is to impart dignity, agency and historical complexity to his subjects.
Each of Marshall’s paintings feels like both a problem and the beginning of a solution. As an ambitious artist, one of the abiding problems he has always faced is the problem of precedent. He is in love with Western art history. But, he has said, “I had to recognize that in that pantheon of old masters there are no black old masters.”
“Visibility,” then, is a problem for black artists and their subjects — a problem perhaps not unrelated to the one that cost Trayvon Martin his life. Marshall comes at this problem with degrees of irony, bitterness and optimism — and just as often with a businesslike shrug of the shoulders — in a body of work that is as compelling as any living painter’s. “Untitled (policeman)” is one of his simpler images, but something about it beguiles me.
For one thing, it isn’t quite real. Despite the relaxed pose, there is something schematic, flattened and not quite there about this officer. That sense is confirmed when you discover that Marshall modeled the subject on a toy figurine, a “Headliner,” rather than an actual policeman. The cruiser, too, was painted from a child’s model, a replica of a Police Interceptor.
Marshall uses figurines as technical aids — to help him see how light behaves when it bounces off a three-dimensional object. But the resulting air of artifice is not accidental and feeds into the image’s meanings.
I think Marshall wants us to feel this painting as an invented reality, a kind of performance, a “what if” — and a work-in-progress. Here is a man, or an image of one; but he is not a symbol. What if you could see him that way?
Yes, he is a cop, and yes, he is black. But he is not a screen for your projections. You do not know what he is thinking, or what, if anything, he might have to do with any wider political context. He has the same resistance to interpretation and analysis as any mature person.
This is all very simple, in one sense. But against the tangled, depressing and at times, phantasmagoric history of representations of black people in Western art, it may mean quite a lot.