Excerpt from “Object/Subject: Still Life in the Works of Kerry James Marshall”, 2023

Unlocking ourselves from the latticework of gazes entwining Kerry James Marshall's 2015 work, Untitled (Studio), we see, front and center, a simple wooden paint-spattered table holding various and sundry objects. Among the expected trapping of an artist's workspace (brushes and canisters of paint), we find a peculiar arrangement of objects: a partially eaten cupcake accompanied by a knife resting on the edge of a small pink plate, an empty teacup, a miniature bust of Abe Lincoln, a large glass jar stuffed with a bouquet of small wildflowers, a goldfinch feasting on a small, brown pile of morsels, a book with a model skull resting atop it, and swatches of colored paper tacked to the side corner of the table. Far from mere accouterments garnishing the larger figural work, this embedded still life works as a visual metonym for the genre itself—each object an emblem of the genre's many iterations: trompe l'oeil (the tacked paper), domestic (teacup and cake), floral, and vanitas (the skull). The small bird is perhaps even a nod to Pliny's parable of Parrhasius and Zeuxis (a comment on the potential for deception in even the most quotidian of images?). The self-referentiality of the still life is a tip of the hat to a larger dialogue that Marshall wants us to consider, one for which the genre's discursive devices are particularly well suited.

Marshall's vigorous engagement with the canon of Western art has been well explored. Less explored, however, is his particular engagement with still life. His dialogue with the genre is perhaps not always as explicit as with others, such as history, portraiture, and genre painting. However, this lack of overt reference does not diminish still life's presence in his work. It is hard to find a piece by Marshall that does not awash his figures in a full array of objects—each one carrying its own particular weight and meaning, together creating a unified expression, a kind of gesamtkunstwerk of black cultural experience. Through his paintings, Marshall demonstrates a keen awareness of the ways in which, through objects, we imprint our environments with the traces of our inner selves as well as our historical heritage and baggage. However, beyond the role of self-fashioning and expression, to which objects serve, Marshall actively examines, plays with, and interrogates the more fluid boundaries between object and subject—particularly, the question of at what moment does the former alter or determine the latter?