Monday, April 10, 2017

Kerry James Marshall's Puzzle Pictures

An anamorphosis is a hidden picture, one distorted so that it becomes legible from a certain perspective. Kerry James Marshall has used anamorphoses in several paintings, one in the MOCA show: School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012). At lower center, two children are intrigued by a foreshortened image of a yellow-haired woman. This refers to the best-known anamorphosis in art history, that in Hans Holbein the Younger's The Ambassadors (1533). From a single-eye viewpoint at upper right, a blurry diagonal near the ambassadors' feet resolves into a skull.

The Holbein is a memento mori, and Marshall must be warning about imported standards of beauty ("good hair").  The yellow-haired woman, outlined in glitter, is Sleeping Beauty of the 1959 Disney film. The spiral curves defining the Disney heroine's hair are nearly identical.

School of Beauty wasn't Marshall's first exploration of anamorphosis. In 2009 he produced two murals for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Visible Means of Support depicted Mount Vernon and Monticello, with anamorphic images of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and literal "hidden figures" of their slaves.
"The logic of mirrors, reflections, and optical deceptions is at the heart of Marshall’s practice," wrote Tatiana Istomina. "His work points toward the major paradox of vision: while we may choose to see or not to see others, we remain somewhat obscure to ourselves and need a counter-presence to throw back at us our more or less distorted reflection. To depict the black figure, Marshall employs and inverts traditions, stereotypes, and expectations established by white culture. The image he constructs becomes another mirror, in which black and white Americans may face themselves and each other."

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