David Zwirner directed its digital spotlight at Kerry James Marshall for the latest installation of its “Studio” series. Introducing the artist’s latest body of work, “Black and part Black Birds in America,” the presentation features a preview of two new paintings and a video conversation with the artist.
Marshall looked to painter and naturalist John James Audubon’s 19th-century publication The Birds of America, which included detailed illustrations of more than 400 species of the country’s birds, for the works. Taking cues from Audubon, the Chicago-based artist depicts the animals flying around flowers and birdhouses, imagined in alluring hues across the color spectrum.
Born on a plantation in Haiti, Audubon’s racial lineage is somewhat of a mystery, likely due to the lens through which race was viewed during his lifetime—for example, the thought that just one Black individual in a person’s heritage categorized that person as Black. It was this ambiguity that drew Marshall to Audubon.
Choosing only to capture black or partially black birds for the series, Marshall utilized these paintings to form an analogy on America’s racial politics over the last 200 years. Dual meanings behind his use of color come into play as a key element, both in a literal and symbolic sense, like the artist’s use of only chromatic black paint (made by mixing colors other than black) when depicting Black figures.
“If you apply the one-drop rule to these birds, then all of these birds are black birds. At a certain point, it starts to become kind of absurd,” said Marshall. “That’s a part of what I’m doing with the bird paintings—addressing a certain kind of absurdity, but also commenting on a certain kind of reality.”