Kerry James Marshall, Unititled, 2008, Acrylic on fiberglass, 79 x 115.25 in. Collection of Neda Young
Meditation on Kerry James Marshall's
Painting is a language. Besides being seen, it is meant to be read and to be felt.
As a painter, I have to believe that everything that I put into a work will be transmitted to people who experience the painting in the flesh, so to speak.
Great art captures and binds emotions with metaphor, eloquently expressed through details of observation.
The grace of a great work of art is that it doesn’t feel forced or labored.
Kerry James Marshall is clearly a master. His large, untitled work from 2008 is on display April 15 – May 15 at The Church as part of a conversation between a photographer, a poet and a painter. The show is called In Dialogue: At the Edge of the Sea.
I am going to focus on the Marshall painting. Because the work is untitled, there affords me more freedom for my interpretation. Because of how beautifully and confidently he has painted it, I am seduced by its unfolding.
The painting depicts a scene taking place at the edge of the sea. A couple, silhouetted against a sunset (or sunrise… or both?) look off to the distant horizon. They lean into each other, shoulder to shoulder, head against head, body to body in an intimate and comfortable embrace. His hand gently caresses her bottom. In the darkness of their silhouette there is no space between them. They are indivisible. They are a union.
A ship sails to the horizon. A tiny lighthouse shines its beacon towards the immensity of the sun’s heavenly light. The ship-bow shape of land on which the couple stand reinforces the painting’s theme of journeys: arrivals, departures, returns. This painting invites reflection on the significance and impact different journeys have upon us: coming from, escaping to, longing for return, or with the history of slavery, taken from. This painting asks us to recall or imagine how the experience of any and all of those conditions would shape our souls.
There is an old broken down barbed wire fence, the remains of which run up and over one side of this spit of land. It denotes borders, boundaries, edges or separation. The barbs explicitly warn us to keep out. There is dune grass and daisies? sparsely dotting this hardscrabble plot of soil. They feel tough, resilient, willful and as far as the daisies are concerned, out of place. These daisies appear in shadow on the lower right and move in single file, sneaking under the fence, until, in the warmth and encouragement of the sunlight, they spread out and flourish.
It should be noted that the daisy has historically and mythologically been used as a symbol of innocence, childbirth, motherhood and perhaps most importantly, new beginnings.
Seagulls flap and flit above the couple’s heads. One of the gulls transects the sun, splitting a beam of light into two halos. This image suggests that this painting is meant to be understood as a sacred allegory of reassignment and redefinition. The seagull’s totemic significance is cunning, perseverance and survival.
The time of day is fixed at a point of eloquent ambiguity. Frozen at the precise moment when a sunrise and a sunset can share the same tone of light and the same position of the sun to the horizon but not share the same significance. This gives the scene a wide range of interpretive direction. Depending on how one reads this moment of time, the painting will be understood as a hope-filled moment or a scene of longing and loss.
I seek out art looking for meaning beyond appearance. I want to leave it feeling as if I’ve seen an apparition, knowing I’ve seen something remarkable. This Kerry James Marshall painting more than satisfies those criteria.
– Eric Fischl, April 2021
L-R, Top to bottom: Rodin's Foot, Giacometti, Van Gogh's Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, and Chris Burden being shot.
reflection on the body
in art and dance
After Martha Graham Dance Company's residency at The Church in February, 2021,
Eric Fischl offered this reflection on their work and the state of the body in art.
To see people using the space of The Church creatively, as intended, since only having workers there or bringing the occasional curious supporter through has made all the difference to me. The Church has now come to life with the residency of the Martha Graham Dance company, has begun to do what it was meant to do. The choreographers and dancers loved being and working there, and we were honored to have them inaugurate the space.
It was amazing to watch choreographer Sonya Tayeh transmit her vision and see the dancers (Lorenzo Pagano, Leslie Andrea William and Jacob Larsen) realize it! I felt privileged being allowed to witness her creative process, making the most subtle adjustments (how deep a dancer’s shoulder must turn, how sharp a cut, how long the position is held) are the seemingly small things you think you wouldn’t be able to perceive until you experience those refinements in creation and realize how big a difference they really do make.
I was talking to Janet Eilber, the artistic director of the Company about the body in dance and it reignited a meditation I have long had on the disappearance of the body in 20th century visual art. Here is a brief historic trajectory through Auguste Rodin, Alberto Giacometti, Vincent van Gogh and Chris Burden.
Rodin was the ultimate believer in our body’s ability to express itself, to externalize the emotional, sexual, psychological and spiritual needs of our souls. No matter how fragmented his sculptures are (sometimes only a hand, a foot), you know immediately and empathetically what the rest of the body is feeling.
Post WWII, the great Modernist sculptor Giacometti’s bodies are emaciated, chewed up figures who show the soul no longer being able to externalize, to share its angst except through deprivation. His artistic vision is the anorectic condition, the body barely animate.
In 1888, Van Gogh, in distress, cuts off his ear. No one thinks that was a work of art. He made a painting called Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Everyone thinks this is art.
Almost one hundred years later, the radical body artist Chris Burden has himself shot in the arm as a performance at an art gallery. Everyone thinks this is art.
What happened in those 100 years that we would come to embrace self-mutilation as a form of creative expression? Aren't our struggles with injustice, helplessness, disappointments, missed opportunities, longing for connection and pleasure the same as they have always been? Certainly, it isn’t the body that has changed. So, what has changed?
This ongoing meditation was reactivated this week while watching these extraordinary dancers use their bodies in such expressive and beautiful ways. The one thing that cannot be disputed is that without the body there would be no dance. And watching them move in space as art, as expression, was a truly healing experience, inspiring and emotionally intact. It was also proof of a great artistic tradition that endures in the Martha Graham Dance Company.
– Eric Fischl, February, 2021
Short videos of the rehearsals are available on our YouTube Channel at The Church Sag Harbor