Save for her eyes and their slight edges, the seated artist in Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled painting (2009) is consummately black. Her skin’s shade blends into the mass of dark hair resting atop her head as though she were dipped in night’s pigmentation, clothed, and placed on this chair. She is of a full-bodied, concentrated coloring; each inch of her skin coated in darkness.
In an interview with Kerry James Marshall for the Yale Daily News, writer Ah Joo Shin notes this propensity for black skin coloring, asking Marshall the inevitably loaded question of “what ‘black’ means to [him].” Marshall articulates this preference for black as a matter of message: “I use it because it’s the most powerful rhetorical device because it operates at the extreme,” he replies. “And since I’m trying to make images that portray the maximum amount of power that [they] can, that’s why the black is most effective…” [YDN]
Certainly for Untitled, chromatic black is power. The image points toward a conception of race as a performance with the artist presenting herself to her audience inevitably to be judged by her skin tone. Because she is especially dark skinned, her race appears not only as an unavoidable fact of her existence, but the fact of her existence. Even with the vibrant canvas behind her and a full palette in hand we remain focused on her blackness. Not yellow, red or blue, but her skin’s black is the image’s primary color.
While the bright materials in her studio are no match for the artist’s dark, these same materials reveal another facet of her identity that appears as equally important to her selfhood as her blackness is: She is undoubtedly an artist. The palette she holds is massive, nearly as large as her visible body, and this size equivalence indicates an artistic identity that is as equally important as her racial one. In her self-portrait, we see the canvas’ paint-by-numbers design abandoned in favor of her individualized pattern; she colors herself however she pleases.
But through Marshall’s use of black to color the artist’s skin, he makes an especially layered comment on racial artifice. That the artist is so especially dark exacerbates the racial undertones of the piece, but that she is so especially dark also calls attention to the fact that her skin is essentially paint, bought at an art supply store and applied by a brush. Sitting in a darkened artist’s studio particularly, her tone reminds us of the fact that black is not only a racial identification, but also a color. And a deep one in all senses of the word.
When I think of deep skin, I am reminded of Toyin Odotula’s pen drawings, portraits of black skinned individuals whose bodies appear near multidimensional through her marking technique. The skin of her individuals looks like external black sinews, maintaining a powerful presence because of this appearance of strength. Unlike Marshall, Odutola’s pen drawings are not a flat black. For Marshall, matte black—an impenetrable coloring—might signify the eternally mysterious social and aesthetic implications of blackness. But Odutola’s textured black enacts these mysteries on the very surface: the multiplicities of blackness are made literal through the intricacies of the individuals’ skin.
One of the first Studio Museum shows I saw back in 2008 was Kehinde Wiley’s The World Stage: Africa, Lagos~Dakar and I remember walking into the gallery space feeling completely floored by these grand portraits. Though richly colored, I couldn’t specify exactly what made these images so visually powerful for me. I later read an article by Roberta Smith that pointed to what I found so distinctive about these Wiley paintings—their deep attention to skin coloration. Smith writes of how “[Wiley] is starting where most figurative painters have started, at least since the invention of oil paint: with the rendering of human skin. He is beginning to paint skin in ways you can’t stop looking at.” [NYT] Wiley, Odutola and Marshall are only but three who’ve found ways to mine its depths.
—Ashley James, Communications Intern