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?
Keep reading

One object in Marshall's painted studio not mentioned above holds a particular role in this object/subject dialectic. It is perhaps the one that is the most explicit—serving as the interlocutor for either side. At the very center of Untitled (Studio), overshadowed in size by the grandiosity of the surrounding composition, a small figurine stands intimately close to its fellow objects, overcrowding the small surface of the artist's table. The figurine is black and dressed in generic Turkish garb. He carries a small golden sack in one hand while the other is raised to his chest in a humbling gesture. What is the significance of this figurine? What or who are they? The identity is somewhat ambiguous; however, one interpretation is particularly pertinent to the discussion at hand: the figurine is a Blackamoor.

The Blackamoor is a concoction of eighteenth-century colonial Europe, hybridizing the black African and the Muslim Moor—collapsing identities and geographies into a pliable, docile trope of the dark "Other." As decorative pieces in the home, often carrying a bowl, dish, or candlestick, these Blackamoor figures functioned in no small part as aesthetic stand-ins for black servitude, demonstrating the owner's wealth and status. However, unlike their living, breathing counterparts, the Blackamoor had been stripped clean of any potential threat. The peril of rebellion, the dormant seething violence of vengeance, is here, in the Blackamoor, sublimated into smiling and pliant servility. The Blackamoor was thus both a decorative motif and an ideological stratagem to rescue the white European's conscience and render natural the happy and thankful servitude of an otherwise idle, uncivilized people.[1]

Through the Blackamoor the process of objectification is made quite literal. With its doting expressions, humbling gestures, oftentimes eroticized supple bodies donned in lush fabrics, adorned with jewels and exotic feathers, and garnished with fruits and splendid flowers, the Blackamoor body became an avatar for white Europe's perverted desires. The decorative body, in turn, functioned at the behest of White fantasy as a proxy for the very real bodies of brown and black flesh. This euphemistic aestheticizing of black servitude worked to shape the identity of an Other through the medium of decorative objects. In the case of the Blackamoor, representation surpassed the real; the object made the person, at least in the eyes of some.

The presence of the Blackamoor in Kerry James Marshall's Untitled (Studio) speaks directly to the historical objectification of black people, not only through representation but also, quite literally, through the rendering of black bodies as objects under slavery. The figurine's presence within a still life places this history of objectification directly in dialogue with Western art historical canon—specifically with the still life genre itself. With this being said, how can the genre's general precepts help us understand this subject/object relation, and in what ways can we say that Marshall is leveraging them to comment on the nature of Black representation?

When confronted with still life, we are forced to consider two things: a world devoid of the human figure, with its histories and grand narratives, and, second, alternative means of formulating subjecthood. Occupying the lowest rung on the hierarchical ladder of genres, the still life was ridiculed by early academicians for its mere formalist preoccupation with surface appearances and eschewal of higher ideals believed to be embodied in figurative and narrative compositions. Despite having its detractors, still life offered artists and viewers alike an opportunity to experiment with visual forms outside of the sanctioned dictums of academia and to take pleasure and contemplation in the stuff of the everyday. Without addressing the human figure directly, still lifes stimulate and rouse the body—the frothy white lacing of a beer's head, half drunk, salivates the tongue with thirst as the handle of an elegant butter knife teetering on the edge of a table temps the grasp. Through these simulated sensations, we are able to explore what it means to inhabit a sensing body and what it means to want to reach or recoil our hand in the presence of delicacies or disgust.

However, something peculiar happens within the frame of the still life when exclusive attention is paid to objects. Within still life, the lower plane of reality, everyday objects assume a position of independence from their use-value and their more quotidian roles. The object's relation to its human counterpart is bracketed, and its autonomous existence is forefronted, imbuing it with a level of humanness. Through this transmutation of the object into the subject, still life challenges traditional hierarchies and systems of valuation, not only aesthetically but ontologically as well. They challenge us to turn our focus toward a plane of reality deemed too mundane for any serious reflection. This turn of the gaze shifts attention to the intimate collections we curate, the latent signifiers that these objects stand for, and the web of meanings that constitute one's social habitus. Although many still lifes were meant as demonstrations of wealth, class, and privilege, the underlying discursive mechanism from which the genre operates is neutral in such regards and is concerned solely with the indirect, subliminal ways in which we construct and display meaning out of our material world.

The exploration of the implicit matrices of meaning gives still life its radical potential. They implore us to read between the lines and pay active attention to the things left unsaid yet well-understood. Activating these otherwise marginal spaces allows us to celebrate as well as interrogate them. When placed within a still life, the Blackamoor in Marshall's Studio becomes reactivated on its own terms and prompts us to examine the history of the aestheticization and objectification of black labor—a history with long, agonizing roots.

The Age of Enlightenment was a time of grave contradiction, witnessing both triumphal human achievements alongside monstrous barbarity. Political rights and scientific methodology eclipsed blood inheritance and superstition. Yet, while Europe waved the flag of progress, its boot stood firmly on the throats of its conquered souls. The market's invisible hand was only so to those free from the despotic grip of exploitation and enslavement. The call for inalienable rights, democratic freedoms, and reason and logic above creed and doctrine rang hollow in the ears of those bearing the weight of chains and the searing sting of the whip. Although it was precisely this contradiction that led to abolitionist movements, it also prompted the formalization and systemization of racial ideologies. The enslavement of African people into a caste system based on concepts of racial inferiority became officialized within this period. The taxonomic classification of species that laid the groundwork for revelatory developments and theories in evolution and genetics also provided the justification for the stratification of human beings into their own hierarchical and rigidly taxonomic order. From this perspective, the subordination of less enlightened and evolutionarily advanced races was morally sanctioned by ordinance of Nature.

However, conceptions of race did not become normalized through rational argumentation alone. To function as ideology, an idea must become thoroughly inculcated within any given society—it must be made felt, appear spontaneous, and intuitive in nature. The ideology of race may have found its point of access into eighteenth-century white European society through the language of scientific discovery, but it made itself appear self-evidentiary through the visual parlance of aesthetics.[2]

Before the development of modern genetics, racial classification was extrapolated from observable attributes and behavior. According to David Bindmand, "human nature came to be described in aesthetic terms, with significant stress on the outward physical signs of inner rationality and harmony."[3] This meant that the complexity and variety of human traits were abstracted and essentialized into easily recognizable codified distillations. Skin color came to stand as the chief identifying marker for each race type—a visual compendium that could summarize an individual's place within the evolutionary hierarchy of human development. Francois Bernier, in a 1684 text entitled, "Nouvelle Division de la terre, par les différentes Espèces ou Races d'hommes qui l'habitent," was the first to partition the diversity of human beings by skin color, in particular, between two principal groups: blacks and whites.[4]

The binary between black and white was later encoded into the visual lexicon of color theory by Claude-Henri Watele. In his entry on color for the Dictionnaire des Beaux-Arts of 1788, Watele states that "Ultimately, one has to use primal colors . . . to which white is added to express light and black to express its deprivation."[5] In such simple terms, and, perhaps, without his full conscious recognition, Watele’s essential formulation is steeped in both moral and social implications. Two primal colors, white and black, representing light and dark—a manichean struggle between good and bad and progress and regression. Watele continues, “it is said that a painting has brilliance when there is light nearly everywhere, that although there are very few shadows to bring out the light, it is nevertheless extremely brilliant.”[6] Here Watele has drawn an equivalent between brightness and brilliance (inherent in the English words themselves, but the equivalence is made through the use of both French words, l'éclat and brillant). However, what Watele also includes within his formulation is the role that darkness plays in defining the radiance of light. From out of one comes the other. Against the opaque depths of darkness light demonstrates its command on lucid intelligibility.

When this color scheme is used by a painter in rendering their subjects, black skin serves as both a visual and symbolic repoussoir, framing and throwing into relief the whiteness and thus purity of the European subject. The 1682 portrait of Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, by Pierre Mignard provides a prime example of this dichotomous presentation of skin color, whose model has been echoed well into the next century. Louise de Keroualle was the French mistress of the King of England, Charles II, during a period of significant economic, maritime, and colonial expansion. In her portrait, Keroualle is presented alongside various riches from maritime trade: a glistening conch shell replete with equally luminescent pearls and a branch of red coral. Offering these riches is a small black girl who smiles with gentle docility when looking up at her mistress. The mistress' hand delicately rests on the young girl's shoulders in a subtle embrace, connoting a sense of possessiveness more than any genuine feelings of endearment.

An object amongst other objects, the young black girl's presence in the portrait functions as a symbol of possession over black labor. However, her function works beyond that of being a simple visual mark of economic exploitation. Her presence holds an aesthetic role as well. As argued by Adrienne L. Childs, "black figures possessed a certain type of ornamental value in European visual culture that included, but went beyond, their status as slaves."[7] Black servants' presence creates a chiaroscuro effect to highlight and illuminate the primary figure's whiteness. The black skin functions as a human shadow, out of which stands in stark relief the lightness and pristineness of white skin. This effect of chiaroscuro is both formal and moral in quality. The symbolic resonance of lightness and purity of white flesh speaks of the lightness and purity of both soul and blood. The opposite of which is what lurks in the obscurity and opacity of blackness.

Black skin is thus abstracted from the solidity of its body and becomes a perverted insignia of the "Other," on which white skin can stake its claim as the privileged subject in the grand narrative of progress and natural order. Through the process of aestheticization, black skin is rendered decorative, and in so doing, the overt coercive subjugation and exploitation of Africans are sublimated into visual and moral harmony. The multiplicity of color and the subtle tones of blacks, browns, caramels, and pinks are exchanged for a simplified, opaque monolith of flesh.

The historical persistence of objectification through aestheticization has undoubtedly been carried over to American shores. Knowing the centrality of black slavery in the founding and development of the United States, it does not take much of an imaginative leap to get from the smiling and docile servant in the portrait of the Duchess of Portsmouth to, say, Aunt Jemima. In this context, the importation and adoption of many of the same visual methods of ideological implantation from Europe to the U.S. are not surprising.

Commonground can be found between black-skin-as-signifier and the genre of still life as a whole, as the black figure has been denigrated to the status of rhopography—a trivial, everyday object. However, the radical potential of both is their threat to the hierarchical order. As articulated by Norman Bryson, "The painting of what is 'mundane' and 'sordid' (rhyparos) is negative only from a certain viewpoint, in which the 'lowness' of a supposedly low-plane reality poses a threat to another level of culture that regards itself as having access to superior or exalted modes of experience."[8]  What is deemed to be objectionable is done so only through an inverse valuation of what is defined to be good. The two are inseparable, and a reevaluation of one means an inescapable reevaluation of the other.

From this perspective, an embrace of objecthood (at least representationally) can be seen as a radical act. Reevaluating the object as a site of both disruptive and generative potential opens the doors for alternative values, narratives, and perspectives to be presented. Examples of the conflation between subject and object appear throughout Marshall's works and seem to be channeling this embrace. Still life with a Wedding Portrait, for instance, immediately asks its viewer to interrogate the meaning of both genres being invoked—is the still life the portrait? Or the portrait the still life? Can a portrait even ever be a still life at all? And what does it mean to insist that one is?

This example depicts a framed portrait of Harriet Tubman and her first husband, John Tubman. Two outstretched arms hold the framed picture against a white wall at each corner. All but one of the hands holding the frame are clad in white gloves, typical of those used by art handlers. The glove on the last hand, on the bottom right, is made of black leather, reminiscent of the now iconic black-gloved salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Summer Olympics, protesting iniquities and in solidarity with Black Power and human rights.[9]  It is a painting replete with gestures towards Black empowerment and whose historical narrative allusions are clear. However, another dimension to this work befuddles any attempt at a straightforward reading. Still Life with a Wedding Portrait is a picture within a picture. According to its title, the figures represented within the portrait are secondary subjects within a broader tableau—the still life. Where, then, should a visual reading begin? Is it a portrait of Harriet Tubman and her husband or a still life of a framed painting? Are we looking at two subjects or a singular object?

By its very definition, a still life is devoid of the human figure. There are, however, exceptions to this. The embedded self-portrait is one such exception, the most masterful example of which is Clara Peeters' 1612 painting, Still Life with Flowers, Gilt Goblets, Coins, and Shells. Within the rounded, globule-like embellishments on the back right goblet are perfectly rendered, curved reflections of Peeters gazing forward with palette and brushes in hand. Peeters' act of self-reflection becomes a reflective act of the painting more broadly. It is a painting about the act of painting and, more elemental, about looking. What occurs when we look at objects that either we or others possess? How do we define them, and how do they define us? Peeters has embedded herself into the materiality of her object, suggesting an analogous relationship—herself likened to the brilliance of the auric chalice of gold or the creator of such brilliance. Either Way, objects are recognized as more significant than merely utilitarian or passive decor. Under the species of ornate gilt cups, exotic foodstuffs, or a simple round of bread lie the spirit of our inner selves or the lurking machinations of social prejudices.

The other exception to the no-human rule of still life is the representation of servants. A prime example is Juriaen van Streeck's Still Life with Moor and Porcelain Vessels, c. 1670–80. The painting presents the typical fare of a seventeenth-century pronk still life; a cluttered yet extravagant mess of post-feast gallimaufry. However, among Streeck's luxurious display of exotic fare, from Chinese blue and white porcelain vases and Persian rugs to succulent oysters, a smiling black figure stands holding a silver platter abounding with citrus fruits. The figure wears the stock costume of the Blackamoor, including a luxuriously embellished, bouffant orange turban and gold laced jacket. Their eyes are directed to the right, out of the boundary of the picture, averting a direct gaze with the viewer in a disarming manner. Streeck's still life provides evidence that its viewership conflated a subject with its representation when it came to black servants—the decorative Blackamoor figurine was one and the same as its living counterpart. One was made of porcelain, the other rendered out of dark, turbid flesh, yet both were objects of possession.

In contrast to Streeck’s straightforwardly racist depiction of a black servant, Marshall's mise en abyme presents its viewer with an unanswerable puzzle—at what exactly are we looking? Perhaps it is in the struggle to answer where the real meaning lies. (After all, without struggle, there is no progress.) If art history has shown us that human reflections in or as objects can be both self-confirming and self-denying, what do we make of an image that professes to do both—that turns its subjects into objects and back again? Still Life with a Wedding Portrait destabilizes accepted definitions and expectations, confusing the lines between genres and their respective systems of meaning-making. By doing so, Marshall's Still Life seeks to visually render the reality of maintaining one's subjecthood under the conditions of objectification, along with all the myriad ways in which both processes commingle, sometimes merging within the individual and broader culture. Effectively, Marshal is burrowing into and making visible the very lived experience of being viewed (and treated) as an object.

This reflexive look at, or witnessing of, one's own object status is most potently demonstrated in the painting, Portrait of the Artist and Vacuum. Although we are presented with a person's portrait, what we see is essentially a duet of objects. The portrait of the artist is rendered as a framed picture hanging on the wall of a room in which the vacuum occupies. The portrait appears quite diminutive in size as it hangs high up on an emphatically red wall. A large, yellow standing vacuum, left unplugged, stands before it, assuming nearly the entire foreground of the composition. Here Marshall provides us with yet another iteration of a picture-within-a-picture. Again, as in Still Life with Wedding Portrait, the painting's title and its pictorial structure confuse identification with any one genre, merging and redefining both. Is this a portrait of the artist and a portrait of a vacuum? Is this a portrait of the artist and a vacuum as two distinct objects within a still life? It is unclear and indeterminable, and that's precisely the point. The destabilizing effect of the painting echoes the same destabilization of one's self-hood when subjugated under racist objectification.

Unlike the subjects in Still Life with Wedding Portrait, who are clearly in possession of themselves—confident, yet guarded in their confrontation with the viewer—the portrait in Portrait of the Artist and Vacuum is caricatured. Marshall does not award this subject with the same nuanced tonal variations as his other figures. Instead, this figure is composed uniformly of black. His jacket and hat are the same color as his skin, creating no distinction other than that deduced from silhouettes. This lack of distinction is abrasively interrupted by the stark white of his eyes, the teeth of a mocking grin, and the triangular sliver of his button-down shirt. According to the Nasher Museum of Art's label text, Portrait of the Artist and Vacuum "is one of the earliest examples of Marshall's signature 'invisible man,'" a conceptual echo of Ralph Ellison's novel of the same name.[10] However, as Ellison's protagonist labors to clarify his identity within a world that seeks to negate it, Marshall's painted artist embraces his invisibility in exaggerated form, becoming mockingly self-aware. The self-referentiality underlying this exaggeration allows Marshall to reappropriate the visual mechanisms that have historically been used to brand and control black identity.

The figure in the framed portrait's removal from the vacuum's spatial realm further underscores the theme of exclusion (once removed from that of the vacuum and twice removed from us as viewers). Without the physical presence of a human in the room, the vacuum appears as if self-animated—yet another mark of invisibility, in this case, of the human who performs domestic labor. Here Marshall is drawing on a distinctive quality of still life to paradoxically invoke the body and human presence by way of their very absence, relaying sensation and emotion through the pregnant aloneness of objects.

How does this quality of still life translate to portraiture? Marshall's decision to render the portrait in this painting as an object within a room opens up the potential to read the piece under the prerogatives of still life and for the aforementioned distinctive quality of the genre to come into play. In the figure's absence, their presence is invoked through the resonant influence of an object. However, in this case, the object is a portrait. The presence of the portrait thus has the inverse effect—rather than the figure's presence; their absence is underscored and made felt. The decision to depict the figure in caricature only further underscores this absence. The choice of the vacuum is yet another marker of absence, the symbolism of which is almost so obvious as to make it comical and, to a degree, it very much is.[11] However, the tragic remains close at hand and our impulse to (perhaps awkwardly) laugh only serves to demonstrate a shared understanding of racism's firm persistence and Western society’s interminable sucking of Black personhood and identity.

In Portrait of the Artist and Vacuum, Marshall externalizes the thingness that rests inside him, or, rather, that has been coerced into him through generations of racial oppression. By placing these externalizations within still lifes, it becomes possible to view them at a distance and to explore their complex symbolic significance, granting them the autonomy to offer new associative meaning. However, the overall feeling of Marshall’s compositions is a dark one. An interrogative look may be granted, but the threat of violent absorption into a psycho-social vacuum remains in the foreground. Through this threat we are urged to consider what it's like to inhabit an objectified body, simultaneously feeling human and thingness.

Where does this discussion leave our interpretation of the Blackamoor in Marshall’s Untitled (Studio)? Unlike in Portrait of the Artist and Vacuum, the figures are rendered physically present in the primary space depicted and the still life rests, separately, on the table. Object and subject are here distinct entities. Or are they? The figures in Marshall’s Studio confront the viewer’s gaze directly—interrupted in their actions to stop and intercept a possible trespasser. Their expressions are scrutinizing, possibly resisting the threat of objectification by the viewer/ intruder’s watch. Since, historically, the Blackamoor has served as a proxy for black labor, perhaps its presence in Marshall’s Studio signifies its repossession under the control of its flesh and blood referent—in this case, the Artist. The labor of the referent, however, is not exploitative or coerced but, rather, free and creative. No longer possessing symbolic control, the Blackamoor is now a relic of regressive cultural attitudes and an imaginary figure born out of fear and contempt. When placed within this still life, the Blackamoor is stripped of its decorative context and, by so doing, prods us to interrogate its history and lineage of symbolic tyranny. An object amongst other objects, it holds no possessions of its own, but only those we choose to give it. The scrutiny in the figures’ gaze is perchance a protective one, defending control of representation.

Or, perhaps, the Blackamoor, like the vacuum, is a reminder of the freedoms still left to be won? a kind of memento objectum? Is this the Gordian knot of Black representation—the bounded state of being both subject and object? Marshall does not offer any straightforward answers, this is not his purpose. It is the provocation of questions and espousal of ambiguity that make Marshall’s works so greatly affective. The historical distinction between genres, figurative and still life, is one not reflected by lived experience. Marshall’s merging and confusion of categories and his embrace of still life as an insurgent genre makes palpable the beauty and complication of, even if often tragic, Black life and its resiliency under the continued reality of objectification.

1. For further reading and historical analysis of the Blackamoor see: Ella Shohat, “The Specter of the Blackamoor: Figuring Africa and the Orient,” The Comparatist 42, no. 1 (2018): 160, doi:10.1353/com.2018.0008, and Adrienne L. Childs, “Sugar Boxes and Blackamoors: Ornamental Blackness in Early Meissen Porcelain,” in The Cultural Aesthetics of Eighteenth-Century Porcelain, ed. Alden Cavanaugh and Michael E. Yonan (London: Routledge, 2017), 167.

2. My discussion of aesthetics is limited to art and not a more exhaustive account of 18th century aesthetic philosophy that dealt with the entirety of sensuous perceptions.

3. David Bindman, Ape to Apollo: Aesthetics and the Idea of Race in the 18th Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 14.

4. Anne Lafont, “How Skin Color Became a Racial Marker: Art Historical Perspectives on Race,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 51, no. 1 (2017): 93, doi:10.1353/ecs.2017.0048.

5. Lafont, “How Skin Color Became a Racial Marker,” 89.

6. “On dit qu'on tableau a de l'éclat, lorsqu'il est clair presque par tout, que, quoi qu'il y ait très-peu d'ombres pour faire valoir les clair, il est cependant extrêmement brillant.” Claude Henri Watele, Dictionnaire des arts de peinture, sculpture et gravure, (Paris: L.F. Prault, 1792) 10, Internet Archive.

7. Adrienne L. Childs, “Sugar Boxes and Blackamoors: Ornamental Blackness in Early Meissen Porcelain,” in The Cultural Aesthetics of Eighteenth-Century Porcelain, ed. Alden Cavanaugh and Michael E. Yonan (London: Routledge, 2017), 167.

8. Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (London: Reaktion, 2008), 137.

9. Wall text, Kerry James Marshall: Mastery, MCA Chicago, Chicago, IL.

10. Kerry James Marshall, “Portrait of the Artist & a Vacuum,” EMuseum (January, 1981): emuseum.nasher.duke.edu/view/objects/asitem/items$0040:16790.

11. There is certainly a comedic element in this painting. Wit, humor, and satire have long been a strategy of both coping and resistance for Black Americans, evident in some of the earliest slave narratives. This is a topic worth further exploration, but is not within the parameters of this current paper.