From the top, here are some things that happen in one of Kerry James Marshall’s new paintings: in a well-appointed bathroom, a Black woman checks her blond ponytail in a mirror; her torso, in its leaf-patterned shirt, funnels down into a chimney on a blue roof; the gutter’s downspout merges with a tree trunk next to a pot of gold and its companion rainbow. You could also read the story from the bottom up.
For four decades Marshall has been helping himself to the bounty of art history, extrapolating distinctive strengths of early Renaissance or French rococo and setting them to work in entirely novel ways to depict Black subjects and Black experience. In a spellbinding exhibition now at Jack Shainman Gallery, it’s Surrealism’s turn. Hilarious and sinister, easy to approach and impossible to resolve, the paintings and drawings in “Exquisite Corpse: This is Not the Game” follow the segmented protocol to which the Surrealists laid claim under the name le cadavre exquise.
In normal play, a folded paper is passed around and each person adds a drawing without being able to see what has come before. Small marks made at the fold show the next player where to connect, but not what they’re connecting to. The point was to create unexpected mash-ups, as demonstrated in a 1934 drawing by André Breton, Jacques Hérold, Yves Tanguy, and Victor Brauner: a preening girl becomes a pair of goose necks, then a fist, and finally a naked bottom on a picnic blanket. “With the Exquisite Corpse,” Breton wrote, “we found a way—finally—to escape our self-criticism and fully release the mind’s metaphorical activity.” It was a way to poke the subconscious into new discoveries—a kind of serial Rorschach test.
Marshall, however, is less concerned with psychoanalytic tropes than social ones. Where the 1934 drawing displaced the girl’s hair onto her hand-held mirror, Marshall puts a fist inside an afro wig adorned with a fist-handled afro pick. Which is to say, he is no more vested in the Surrealist agenda than he has been in Renaissance piety or the social values of the Ancien Régime. And anyway, he is playing solitaire.1 So when a quintet of electrical cords rises up to become the outline of a man made of money, or when an arctic ocean flows into a pair of green shorts, something other than accident is in operation. Nothing about Marshall’s exquisite corpses is makeshift or provisional; all exhibit his usual compositional aplomb. (This is, after all, the artist who painted ten-foot-long Rorschach blots by hand.) Each image is constructed as a body—head at one end and something to stand on at the other. In between, backs may become fronts, people may become things, up may turn down.
Some of the drawings have a visible crease between the sections, others are merely fenced off in pencil, but every break marks a change of both subject and style. The artist’s hand segues from clip-art clarity to delicate cross-hatching to aqueous color washes. There are high heels in a brisk early-Sixties mode, bright kiddie-cartoon flowers, and a snowman delivered with the winsome dignity of N.C. Wyeth. Completing the pretense of multiple authors, the drawings are signed as many times as there are sections, each iteration taking a different form of the artist’s name. Amplifying this protean tease to the scale of large paintings produces a more formalized and unified front, but the stylistic code switching remains.
Though Surrealists’ examples are often curiously homogeneous, with all the participants seeking the outré in similar ways, Marshall locates each tranche in a self-sufficient universe with its own rules and costumes and props. Yet somehow they join up to suggest something like a story. A couple drawn in India ink gaze at each other with the light of love in their eyes; their heads sit atop a pair of folded bronze arms, draped in an oversized golden chain and silver pendant reading “BLING$BLING,” which perches on the back of a line drawing of overlapping, occupied chairs. The footer shows sneakers walking through an array of folded and numbered yellow cards—evidence markers for a crime scene. Thriller, romance, or reality show?
Strange details abound. One drawing descends from an extravagantly plumed, vaguely futuristic hat to a sword bearing a severed head, and eventually to a tile floor littered with trophies, African sculptures and masks, and the mounted head of a terrier labeled “Fluffy.” Once noticed, these things feel like clues dropped for us to chase into some larger narrative or set of references. Surely the skeletal arm along the bottom edge of a painting is an allusion to Edvard Munch and Jasper Johns? The artist is mum. Marshall chose to provide no explanatory text for the show—no wall text, no press release. We are left to our own devices. Does it mean something that the flowers near the pot of gold look like pink asters, while those opposite look like African daisies? One can almost hear the shrink’s voice intoning, “Do you think it means something?”
The slip and slide of potential connections bears a certain kinship to Rythm Mastr, Marshall’s ongoing, multidimensional epic of African-art-derived superheroes on Chicago’s South Side. Rythm Mastr has taken various forms but has appeared most often as discontinuous comic strip snippets. It’s up to the viewer to try to piece things together, fill in the blanks, and take note of small events or signs that may mark moments of alignment between different characters and subplots. The exquisite corpses bring a similar partitioned-yet-connected flexibility to the confined image and the human body.
As befits the exhibition’s title, morbid artifacts of misadventure crop up regularly: a hand lights a cigarette on the smoldering spine of a skeleton; a caped and crowned superhero (blazoned “Afro Man”) balances his mismatched feet on human heads; a reclining woman toys with a necklace of bones. There are stagy film-noir threats (a gun served on a silver platter) and technicolor gore (the severed head bleeds magenta). As also befits the title, corporeal beauty and its pursuit drive much of the action. Careful attention is paid to self-presentation—the polished loafers, the emphatic tie, the jeans sagging low to show off boxers in a pretty sailboat pattern. A woman with a take-no-prisoners expression flaunts pink lips, turquoise eye shadow, and highlighter-yellow hair like a Warhol Marilyn, though her hips shake a grass skirt and cowrie shells. A queen, wearing her head and crown upside down, holds out blonde tresses in one hand, black braids in the other, as if weighing her options.
Decisions have been exercised but the self-determination ends at each fold, and always with an uncertain outcome. At the base of one drawing, a couple with an infant stand in an inflatable boat on open water (the boat looks flimsy, but the day looks fine). At the top, three female heads support naked, bound figures (hopefully ferrying them to safety?). The large and lovely fish in the middle is an Asian Carp—in China, an auspicious signifier of self-betterment; in America, an invasive species.
Though everything in the show is untitled, each carries a brief descriptor in parentheses. The drawing subtitled “Venus” is topped with two large and lovely eyes, from which two streams of black ink flow south and branch into the outline of an elementary torso; a twiglet arm, bent akimbo, terminates on the wide, steatopygic hip of a naked woman. The physique and subtitle together raise the ghost of Sarah Baartman, the Khoikhoi woman exhibited to European audiences in the 1810s as the “Hottentot Venus.” With bright inks and fine lines, Marshall brings all the pomp and pageantry of European waterborne goddesses to bear—her feet planted in two clamshells, she cuts through the waves surrounded by mermen, seagulls, and a breeching whale—but it’s all still attached to black tears.
A note: contrary to the commonly repeated claim, the Surrealists did not invent the Exquisite Corpse, they just rebranded it. In the nineteenth century and still today in families like the one I grew up in, the game was known as “Consequences.”