The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 22–JAN 23

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DEC 22–JAN 23 Issue

Kerry James Marshall: Exquisite Corpse: This is Not the Game

Kerry James Marshall, <em>Untitled (Exquisite Corpse Rollerblades)</em>, 2022. Acrylic on PVC panel. 78 x 120 x 2 inches. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Exquisite Corpse Rollerblades), 2022. Acrylic on PVC panel. 78 x 120 x 2 inches. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

On View
Jack Shainman Gallery
Kerry James Marshall: Exquisite Corpse: This is Not the Game
November 3–December 23, 2022
New York

Kerry James Marshall takes the show’s title, Exquisite Corpse, from the collaborative parlor game in which one person inaugurates a drawing, folds it over, and passes it on. Once the last person has finished their drawing, the entirety is revealed. Humor emerges in felicitous conjunctions and mismatches. In paper-based versions of the game, one might find a fold, but in Marshall’s paintings and drawings, it is the figures that are segmented stylistically. As a whole, each assemblage furthers Marshall’s ongoing investigation into the historical relationship between Black people and art production by producing its own meditation on the different ways that Black people have been portrayed.

Each of the show’s images arrests in its own particular way. In Untitled (Exquisite Corpse Rollerblades) (2022) a blonde woman with bangs and bouffant hairdo reclines on a mint pillow, eyes looking toward stardust swirling above her in a pink bedroom. Below her neck, her loungewear and skin make a study in grays accented with black puffs of fur at the shoulders and wrists while her long fingers and pink nails idly consider a necklace that resembles bones. At her waist, the portrait shifts perspective to show a crosshatched nude bottom facing the viewer, but in the final black-and-white section we see legs and feet firmly ensconced in roller blades, no bedroom or any other backdrop in sight. Read from left to right, each vertical cleavage announces a distinct painterly approach to the subject with its own emotional and representational baggage. The lush, dark realism of the first two segments emphasizes the imaginative possibilities of going more deeply into blackness, of revealing intelligence and complexity. The third segment offers a twist in both posture and approach. Its fine lines recall early modern anatomical drawings, not only because of its emphasis on musculature, but also because it focuses on that overdetermined site of scientific fixation—the buttocks of a Black woman. The flat style of the fourth segment, meanwhile, slides toward the comic in its extravagant attention to the incongruous rollerblades—footwear not usually associated with lying in bed.

Each painting contains its own figural meeting of worlds, but these differences highlight several important things about the representation of Black people. Although Marshall is the sole artist, his summoning of collaboration reminds us of the social aspects of racialized representation—the scientific objectifying gaze and the reductive threat of caricature, for example—are always lurking within any representation of a Black person. As Rebecca Wanzo, scholar of gender and race studies, writes in her analysis of caricature, “The quotidian nature of invisible injury invites excess. Embodying caricature can, for the racial other, become a way of being seen.”1 What Wanzo brings attention to is the way that these representations are part of how Black people have been made visible as participants in the larger social body; they emplace Black people within the broader representational register. From this perspective, Marshall’s paintings peel back some of these layers in order to make visible the complex histories of representation that underlie what we see when we see images of Black people. In other words, they make visible the racialized frameworks underlying visibility itself.

Installation view: <em>Kerry James Marshall: EXQUISITE CORPSE: This is Not the Game</em>, Jack Shainman Gallery, 2022. Photo: Dan Bradica.
Installation view: Kerry James Marshall: EXQUISITE CORPSE: This is Not the Game, Jack Shainman Gallery, 2022. Photo: Dan Bradica.

However, by announcing these forms of collaboration as play, Marshall also allows us to imagine what power might be inherent in acknowledging these representational legacies. This is to say that Marshall’s project literalizes an embrace of the representational whole of these subjects, rendering them more complex by illuminating the fault lines in their framing. This is also where we come to the import of the line, the break, or the fold, however we wish to designate what happens when the style changes. These are places where the figural continuities might gesture not only toward the past, but also toward representational futures. In Untitled (Exquisite Corpse Peacock Feathers) (2022) a drawing of a man in a suit sitting on a chair amid a messy collection of trophies, sculptures, and plaques evolves into a hand holding a machete balancing a freshly severed head, which then becomes an inky bust with downcast eyes, and a green tricorn hat with a fantastically large set of pink plumes. Another drawing, Untitled (Exquisite Corpse Blonde Hair) (2022) colors in the hair, eyeshadow, and lips of a figure who gazes steadily from the frame, one ear dripping a massive diamond; she wraps one hand protectively around her waist while the other delicately removes a bra strap; below the waist she wears a tufted grass skirt adorned with cowrie shells that ease into a pencil skirt and heels, which point out of the frame. These are places representation might go; the stylistic breaks enable creativity, and, as Fred Moten might suggest, fugitivity.2 Smuggled within each figure is its own arc of Black performance in its moments of capture as well as various modes of illegibility. Most hopefully, Marshall demonstrates how the wild fungibility of the exquisite corpse method leads us to radical possibility—both inside and outside of representation. Here, figures transmute into trees, astronauts, runners. They exist in the past, present and future—everywhere all at once. Representation can trap, but, Marshall suggests, there is also always a lot more going on underneath the surface. Excavating these corpses reveals portions of the (exquisite) breadth of permutations (past, present, and futural) for Black life and Black ways of living.

  1. Rebecca Wanzo, The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 27.
  2. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2003).


Amber Jamilla Musser

Amber Jamilla Musser is Professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU, 2014) and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (NYU Press, 2018).


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