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Over the past fifteen years, Kerry James Marshall has become the history painter of post-Civil Rights USA. In his large-scale canvases, figurative groups placed among scenic backdrops often evoke the utopian aspirations of the 1960s, and in this way his paintings open onto an imaginative or even fictional space in which the relation between past and present becomes the subject for a fresh set of narrative possibilities. Structured by the recombinant principle of collage and a painterly interest in the formal properties of flatness, Marshall's body of work is best understood as a manifestation of Afro-modernism on account of its critical relationship to prevailing conventions of modernism. By examining his early work, my intention is to show how Marshall arrived at a set of choices that led him to an alternative to the discourse of postmodernism that prevailed at the beginning of his career in the 1980s, even as he maintained a complex relationship to the discourse of High Modernism that was associated with abstract painting and he views of critic Clement Greenberg.
Marshall's enigmatic compositions, with their figures often in pairs or groups, suggest potential scenes of dramatic action, but any straightforward access to narrative content is intercepted by a rich ensemble of painterly effects in which various drips, dots, strokes and scumbles are scattered throughout the textured surfaces that are so distinctive to Marshall's paintings. To the extent that such painterly 'noise' interferes with the figure/ground distinction as a foundational aspect of painting, it acts as the locus of conceptualisation in Marshall's work, marking the point at which alternative understandings of 'history' are brought to the threshold of representation. By questioning the conditions of representation surrounding