While I am working on several longer and fairly academic postings about works by Terrance Houle, Rebecca Belmore, and Kerry James Marshall, I will post this short piece in response to one of Kerry James Marshall’s paintings on exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. First, Kerry James Marshal is an African-American artist and his figurative paintings use color symbolically, collapsing the color black with the racially identifying term Black. Marshall uses solid black paint with little or no value or tonal differentiation on the skin. It is an interesting conceptual technique, and it got me thinking about the similar use of color terminology in relationship to Native Americans – Red. I stood in the gallery for a long time in front Marshall’s Black Painting (sorry, I haven’t been able to get an image of it yet). I took notes. I made some sketches. The entire painting is black with just very slight differences in shade and surface. Looking closely, the painting depicts a Black couple in a black bed in a black bedroom at night. You can make out the bed, nightstands, lamps, books on the nightsand (Angela Davis, If they Come in the Morning), and a Black Panther flag against the far wall above a dresser. The painting is quite large, taking up nearly the whole wall in the gallery.
I decided to make my own version as a Red Painting: an Indian couple in a red bedroom. I’m the odd combination of artist and academic. I often use my own artistic practice as a way of thinking through academic ideas and problems. Pictures and physcial objects help me undertand abstracts more fully. I wanted to make Red Painting because I don’t think that a red painting could do the same thing that Marshall’s Black Painting did. I had the chance to do some linocut printing in the printmaking studio at The Evergreen State College and took the opportunity to execute my idea. I used the same composition, but mirror-imaged. The books in my version are labelled in Cherokee text that translates as “This is their home.” I also included an abalone shell on the dresser and a dog (rez dog?) sleeping on the bedroom floor.
Issues of race, color, and skin tone are not identical from one situation to another. While there are similarities, the Red Painting just does not work the same way that Marshall’s Black Painting works. There is also the reality of the color itself – red is a bright primary color and since about 64% of our eyes’ cones are designed to perceive red, that means that looking at a large red field is fairly taxing on the physical structures of our eyes. Looking at a black painting causes pupil dilation and over the course of looking for a couple minutes, you can pick out more details in the dark expanse of the canvas. Not so with looking at a completely red painting. You begin to pick up less detail with prolonged viewing, and probably feel a bit frustrated, too. My experiment was doomed to failure, but I knew I had to create the work anyway. I also wanted to share my failure because I think there is something worth learning from in the failures that happen when we try to translate an idea, a practice, a representational trope across the boundaries of race and culture. I hope to get into this a bit more with the other entries I’m working on.
I’m back from summer travelling and hope to get a lot more writing done this month. With judicious breaks for sunshine, housecleaning, and curating an exhibition.