Just how good is Kerry James Marshall’s show at David Zwirner in London’s Mayfair district? So good that the second I left today I began plotting the next time that I could sneak out of the Frieze Art Fair this week to give it another view. Plenty of shows open here in the coming days, and there are plenty more that I have yet to see, but so far Marshall’s seems like the most exciting one in town. People are talking about it.
Titled “Look See,” this is his first solo appearance in London since 2005, and his first show with Zwirner. He has delivered a knockout. Fifty-nine on Friday, he has hung 14 new paintings, most of solitary people, who are posing for a screen, or for themselves, or even for you. The mood is intimate, erotic, and occasionally voyeuristic. They may make you uncomfortable—like you are peering in on a private moment—but you will not want to look away.
These are formidable, alluring objects, painted on thick PVC panels. Their surfaces are flat, but the brushstrokes, patterning, and color they contain are luscious. The subject of Untitled (Sofa Girl) (all works 2014), for instance, reclines alone on Daniel Buren-striped fabric, cloaked in a deep-blue-purple-black darkness, remote in hand, watching a television set that is just out of view, but which casts a slight glow over room. She has short hair, a facial expression that is a rare mixture of exhausted, amazed, and dazed—the face of insomnia-induced TV binges (a rare sight in art, but one you have felt)—and an adorable, very sleepy cat. It is an incredible painting, complex but immediate.
So too is the one of a topless woman holding her breasts as she goofs off for the mirror in front of her, pink-gridded wallpaper setting the scene behind; and the attractive young couple in a restaurant holding hands, enjoying electric blue cocktails, staring straight out of the painting even as the man playfully brandishes an engagement-ring case behind her, hamming it up for the viewer; and the woman in a white bra top, slim sea-foam blue bikini, and pink flip-flops who reclines on a beach towel but looks away, annoyed, as though she has been cat-called or ogled.
The works ask questions, with a quiet but unveiled directness, about who is allowed to view another person, and about who is allowed—or simply is good enough—to be viewed, praised, and adored (two concern a beauty contest winner), and how race and class shape those discussion. (As usual with Marshall, all of his figures are black, and he paints their skin in dark, dark tones.)
To put my enthusiasm another way: Marshall may very well end up being remembered as our Hopper. That, at least, is my hope. Like the latter master, he conjures a wide and nuanced range of emotions from what at first appear to be relatively straightforward domestic scenes. Once you start looking, his warm, sincere devotion to detail makes you feel at home there, like you are visiting places where you would like to spend some time. And so, even as you are spying in on rooms you should not be, catching people at their most private moments, you get the feeling that you are also, at the same time, peering in on yourself.