31 March 2008
SGC - Kerry James Marshall
On Friday afternoon, Kerry James Marshall spoke before he was awarded a "Lifetime Achievement In Printmaking" award from the SGC. Marshall's work, which I had never seen before, is characterised by politically-charged references to the Black American experience. A lot of the work he showed was painting rather than printmaking, but the large stamps in the photo above are actually usable print matrices with slogans such as "Black Power" and "We Shall Overcome." I liked Marshall's paintings a lot:
Marshall said some strong words and talked a lot about what art is and what art does. Here are some points I wrote down:
* Marshall pointed out that these days, especially with digital media, it's become very easy to make images both inside and outside the art world, and many people make successful images. But he believes that artists with ambition need to fit their work into the historical narrative of art history, need to understand the implications of their art for its moment.
I found these comments somewhat counter to something that Daniel Heyman said the day before. Heyman said that he thinks it's fairly impossible for an artist to deliberately set out to create "The iconic image" for a time, an image that will change history. Heyman feels that the best an artist can do is to work from what obsesses him/her and hope that it makes an impact. That feels more true to me. I think it's easy for a successful artist like Marshall to look back and ascribe reasons for his success, but setting out to fit one's work into the flow of art history is a longshot at best. Understanding the history of art (and human history, for that matter) is vital, but understanding history doesn't mean that you can force your own work to fit an important historical niche. I think that if you're going to try to situate yourself in the flow of history as an artist, the best place to situate yourself is right smack in the middle of your own life, right in this moment in time, and respond to what's in front of you.
* Marshall also said that because a teacher has to give everything to the students, being an artist and being an art teacher are not really compatible. I have no way to evaluate if that's true or not, but for the many academics at the conference those words must have been hard to hear. I'd be curious to hear some of the educators respond to that.
* Marshall also had a strong message for young artists not to depend on other people to decide the value of your work; to take control of defining yourself. He said that an artist needs to distinguish him/herself by creating work that's undeniably profound and provocative, so people have to deal with it whether they like the work or not. One way he mentioned for taking more control is to write, and to write critically. I think he means academic writing, but I would stretch his words to mean just writing. As I've been writing this blog for the past almost 3 years, I've learned so much about my own art and my own process by articulating it. I think that far too few artists have the ability to articulate what they're doing in their own work.
* Marshall is an advocate of the artist as scientist. He says that the idea that the artist is some kind of medium who channels art as if in a trance is a myth that many artists buy into. For Marshall, an artist takes things that he/she understands and fuses them with new things to make new compounds, new elements. In his own work, he says he makes clear choices and doesn't leave a lot to chance. No "happy accidents" for Kerry Marshall!
I enjoyed his talk very much and am still pondering a lot of this material.