Dignified, upright, elusive, free of captivity, taking matters into their own hands. This is both a portrait of Kerry James Marshall and the image of Nat Turner.
Kerry James Marshall’s figures have a ghostly quality, and he continually crafts psychologically fraught spaces. I see his paintings as horror movies, even when the content is sweet and the figures are frolicking. There’s something alien in his pictures, as if the figures are phantoms operating in spaces with no oxygen. The eyes of Marshall’s figures are always set adrift in seas of black and blue, deep and closely toned. Even when these eyes aren’t locked on ours, the figures seem to be aware of us. It’s not immediately evident that these humanoid forms are more than silhouettes. Scrutiny reveals modulations: however, once the realization is made, it all feels too late, as the power dynamic is in favor of the figure. Marshall’s figures see us in mid calculation before we can fully construct the figure’s entirety in our minds. It keeps the viewer at a constant disadvantage. It’s a psychological horror I’m describing, one where we are left wondering how these figures came to be, ruminating forever on the construction of blackness.
The central figure in “Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master” is not only bound by the aforementioned mechanics, but takes on a quality of a different kind of horror film. “Gore” horror. Described on Wikipedia as “graphic violence visually depicted, especially the realistic depiction of serious physical injuries involving blood, flesh, bone and internal organs.” Is “Portrait of Nat Turner…” Marshall’s answer to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ seminal gore horror film, 1964’s “Two Thousand Maniacs!”? I doubt it, as Lewis’ love of blood splatter was its own expressive statement that outweighed his actual story-telling at times. Marshall simply used the gore in this painting to elucidate the edge of an otherwise quiet argument. Even though Marshall handles the violence in his painting with the same understated grace and elegance as any of his other images (even the chop marks on the door have an elegance to them), the depiction of blood is no less uncharacteristic.
“Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master” is the only painting of Marshall’s I know of that he has painted completely in oils. This is a curious detail indeed as Marshall is not given to random and unplanned gestures. Each move he makes towards the construction of his images is precise and deliberate and doubles back into the content. Knowing Marshall’s specificity when it comes to material and content, I assume that the choice of oil as a medium was somehow important to the reading of this work. To punctuate this anomaly and to perhaps highlight its importance in his oeuvre, he included “Portrait of Nat Turner…” in his retrospective, “Mastry.” It’s also the only painting in the show that makes any reference to the title of the exhibition, evidenced by the word “master”. All this to say that there are numerous uncharacteristic moves in this particular work, leading me to believe that these descriptors are all pointing to something.
Is “Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master” Marshall’s self-portrait? Maybe he is making the case that the head on the pillow is Pablo Picasso, a widely agreed upon “master” of modern art, and Marshall has moved beyond his legacy, forging an equal or greater path for painting’s future. Compare the drapery to the left side of the standing figure to that on the right side. To the left, the pinkish tinged bed cover flows in accordance to relaxing linens, and to the right, the blueish bedsheets fractalate as if we’re seeing them through a cubist lens. The paint handling, coloration, and expression of the master’s head puts me in mind of Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” with his sickly pallor. Nat Turner’s left arm is missing, re-appearing as a shadow that holds the bed in place as he poses. One arm in the shadows while the other becomes a shadow, typifying Marshall’s subversive sleight of hand as a painter. Speaking of which, Marshall painted this image in the exact same way he would if it were one of the dozens of other acrylic paintings he’s made: painting an oil painting that looks like an acrylic painting pretending to be an oil painting. You can’t get more cubist than that!
Balthus, Portrait of Andre Derain, 1936, Oil on wood, 44 3/8 x 28 1/2 inches
To further explore the theme of the self-portrait as related to “Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master ”, I will compare it to Balthus’ “Portrait of Andre Derain”. Firstly, there are striking compositional similarities between these two pictures. The standing figures bisect the verticality of both images in the same way. The open doorways in the backgrounds of the paintings also interact with the figures’ heads in the same way, almost suggesting a thought bubble. Balthus trades Marshall’s busted door for wooden stretcher bars. The figures to the left of the standing figures are compromised in both pictures. Secondly, with Marshall, the master figure is without a body, while Balthus’ model figure has her body partially exposed. Simon Abrahams makes the case that Balthus fused the faces of Derain with that of French Baroque painter, Nicolas Poussin to create the “Portrait of Andres Derain”. Since Poussin was one of Balthus’ heroes, he identified the composite Derain/Poussin portrait as a kind of self-portrait.
This tessellation of representations bespeaks the nature of Picasso’s Cubism, unfolding in time, landing us back at the unconventional picture that is “Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master”. Maybe the conspiracy theorist in me has made too much where there is nothing. It is possible. However, I’ve tried to not stray too far from what is present in the picture. I focus in on the eyes. The cool confident stare of Marshall’s “Nat Turner” speaks directly to me as a painter, saying to accept without regret the task at hand and rewrite the master script of possibility. With Marshall’s “Mastry”, I witnessed a rebellion that can’t be unseen or unconsidered. It is an addendum to the history of painting that hopefully will spark many new rebellions.
Trenton Doyle Hancock, Portrait of the Artist Under Night, 2012, Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 12 x 9 x 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York
Trenton Doyle Hancock is a mixed media artist whose internationally renowned work revolves around a narrative cosmology of personal myth, art history, and pop and cultural iconography. He is in the collections of numerous museums including the MoMA, New York, NY; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; the Studio Museum, New York, NY; Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA. He lives and works in Houston, TX.