Writings Samples

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

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?

2. Contributed research and text for the exhibition, Seen in the Mirror: Things from the Cartin Collection, at David Zwirner Gallery.

Factsheet for Peder Balke, Fra Nordkapp, 1853:

Nearly lost to obscurity, the nineteenth-century Norwegian landscape painter Peder Balke (1804–1887) only recently became resurrected as an important figure of Northern Romanticism. Although his radical political convictions eventually ended his artistic career, his idiosyncratic methods and style situated him at the forefront of a then burgeoning Nordic modernism.

Balke was born on the small agrarian island of Helgøya, Norway, to an impoverished working-class family. Before studying under the Romantic painter Johan Christian Dahl, Balke began his career as a house painter, decorating interiors with faux marbling and stencils. He translated these methods to his easel painting, first putting down a smooth, hard base of white paint and then adding a wet layer of dye that he worked with a sponge, felt, fingers, or a coarse brush. Although dismissed as a shabby way of painting by his contemporaries, this innovative technique allows the white background to shine through, creating the illusion of depth that would become the hallmark of Balke’s striking compositions.

Perhaps more formative than his academic training was his intimate contact with nature. Balke was the first Norwegian artist to sail north, navigating the icy Barents Sea hundreds of miles past the Arctic Circle, making him also the first artist to depict these landscapes. Balke would undertake numerous voyages, oftentimes on foot, along the Norwegian coast, seeking to both uncover and experience the unsettling presence of the Romantic sublime firsthand. His landscapes effectively metabolized these experiences into poetic visions, fusing observation with intense emotional expression. Although greatly influenced by Caspar David Friedrich, whom he met in Dresden during his travels, Balke’s paintings differed in their more mannered style, oftentimes favoring abstracted forms over more mimetic renderings. Nevertheless, the influence of Friedrich and Dahl is evident in Balke’s preference for symmetrical compositions and a monochrome palette as well as in the view of nature as a symbol of the sublime.

The present work depicts the North Cape in northern Norway, a volcanic rock plateau rising one thousand feet above sea level. Balke visited the North Cape only once, in 1832, but his memory of the experience became a source of inspiration for the rest of his lifetime. By 1853, the landscape—at the time believed to be the northernmost point in Europe—had become a signature image to which Balke returned to again and again. This characteristic nocturnal seascape offers a dramatic moonlit view of the landmass and the sea, along with scattered figures and detailed ships. Balke’s rich palette, ranging from dark blue to burnt umber, highlights the juxtaposition between light and shadow, especially evident in the semitranslucent ice coating the rock. A canny use of materials and texture is exemplary of Balke’s mature style: the flat sky smoothly coats the paper support, while the dark-gray jutting rock is rendered with visible brushstrokes and the surface of the water includes protruding areas of impasto. Describing an earlier North Cape painting exhibited in Oslo in the fall of 1848, a critic wrote that it “is deserving of interest on account of the nature of the subject, but also because of the particularity of the perception of the chosen moment. The dark precipice, protruding into the bright light of the rising moon, with its steep drop and the horizontal outline of its plateau at the foot of which the polar sea is quietly rocking, does not fail to affect the imagination of the spectator.”

3. Excerpt from “Watteau’s Fêtes Galantes and the Culture of Emulation”

Watteau’s works, through the life experiences of the artist to the collecting habits of those who composed the bulk of his buyers, operated within the realm of social emulation. For his bourgeois buyers, Watteau’s fêtes galantes would have functioned as a currency of status in both their existence as objects of art as well as in their visual offerings: luscious, overgrown nature, sumptuous gowns and costumes, and idle leisure. The tactics of bourgeois sociability, of appropriation and repurposing, of rendering abstract and malleable symbols that once were tethered to singular, historically rooted meaning, and even of self-conscious imitation all find home in Watteau's works. His fêtes galantes are explorations in social performance, in the interchange of gesture, posture, and dress. However, he is not concerned with the specificity of meaning, but in the overall effect, in the pure aestheticism of the social body. The elusiveness and ambiguity in these works reflect this concern, but they also reflect a more general phenomenon occurring in his society—the visual discursive field of an old order being permeated by foreign agents. The visual culture of one was being parasitized by the other, transforming them both in the process.

The instability, or rather fluidity, of the discursive structure of cultural emulation, with its unmooring of signifiers, opened up space within the visual imagination for unsanctioned and hybrid commixture of genres (both high and low), styles, and forms. From the explosion of consumer goods, with the faux-luxe among them, to the profusion of advertisements, both shop signs and in print, the visual landscape of early eighteenth-century Paris opened out into a kaleidoscopic and heterogeneous display of visual forms. In this context, the perfect playing ground was cultivated for Watteau's imaginative faculties and allowed for an exploration in ambiguity, artifice, and social performativity as an aesthetic act.

Artifice and the deceptions of sight are all front and center in Watteau’s fêtes galantes. For instance, there is no narrative to follow, no privileged site of action, no central figure or figural grouping to anchor our attention and thus interpretation. Instead, what is provided is a lateral dispersal of figures where the primacy of the human form is thwarted, even as the body’s carnal desires are invoked. The figures are dwarfed within the pictorial space that they encompass with their bodies and flesh hidden underneath their costumes. In effect, this deemphasis of the body obstructs the potential for erotic gratification and thus precludes any seduction of pictorial illusion with it. Instead of becoming wholly enraptured within the figures’ world, which becomes an extension of our own, we are constantly drawn in only to be pushed back out again. The space in which the figures reside is unnavigable; there is no single vantage point nor a single source of light, and the spatial relations between figures and objects do not follow the laws of perspectival convention. Instead, Watteau stresses an admittance to painting’s inherent artificiality and attention to its surface quality. In effect, Watteau’s works renege on the traditional prerogatives of Academic painting of either platonic ideals or to mimesis of nature. Instead, he allowed his art to function on its own terms. Mimicking the logic of the imitation luxury item or the emulating bourgeois, Watteau took the potent visuality of polite society, emptied it of any direct social and historical meaning, and transformed it into unfettered aesthetic play.

4. Contributed supporting text for David Zwirner Gallery’s online viewing room of Exceptional Works: Wunderzeichenbuch (Book of Miracles)

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