DETAILS ARE CRITICAL in Kerry James Marshall‘s paintings. In “Our Town” (1995), the artist portrays a pleasant 1950s-era neighborhood scene. A young boy bikes down a vehicle-free lane with his sister and their dog running alongside him. Wearing an apron, their mother can be seen in the distant background waving from the walkway of a large suburban home with an above-ground pool and swing set in the backyard.

While children at play in a safe neighborhood, blue birds, and enormous rays of sun emphasize the joy and optimism of American idealism, embedded details complicate the scene. Chicago-based Marshall has festooned the trees with yellow ribbons, for example, and sited small, closely clustered homes, in the manner of public housing, adjacent to the family’s residence.

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., acquired “Our Town” in 2009 and has created a virtual reality video immersing viewers in the details of the painting. Stepping inside the scene, the contrasting elements are brought to life and the layered depiction can be considered up close.

“This grand-scale painting evokes a fantasy of happiness comparable to sitcoms of the 1950s or Thornton Wilder’s portrayal of the average American family in his 1938 play ‘Our Town,’ from which Marshall derived his title for the work,” the narrator of the video says.

“The visual optimism of the image becomes less clear, however, when one considers the yellow ribbons wrapping many of the trees. These suggest the family has a loved one serving in the military and are awaiting this person’s homecoming. The strange, abstract areas of overlaid paint and collage across the left side of the canvas, along with the sullen gazes of the children staring at the viewer, also work to undermine the pristine celebration of suburbia.”

“The visual optimism of the image becomes less clear, however, when one considers the yellow ribbons wrapping many of the trees. …The strange, abstract areas of overlaid paint and collage across the left side of the canvas, along with the sullen gazes of the children staring at the viewer also work to undermine the pristine celebration of suburbia.”

“OUR TOWN” IS PART of Marshall’s The Garden Project series, his first cohesive body of work. The artist had the image of European pastoral scenes in mind when he conceived the paintings. He reinvented the bucolic settings by casting the scenes with African American families living in public housing. Marshall grew up in Nickerson Gardens, a public housing community in Los Angeles, and has spoken about the desirability of the homes at the time.

“When people moved into the projects in the ’60s, they really were sort of idyllic places. They were great places to be. People really wanted to be in the projects back then,” Marshall said in 2016, during a press preview of “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” his retrospective exhibition at MCA Chicago. He spoke of the normalcy of the communities established by the federal government to provide safe and affordable housing for low-income families. Residents, he said, took pride in maintaining the lawns in front of their homes.

Marshall lived near Stateway Gardens and Wentworth Gardens, two Chicago public housing projects, when he produced The Garden Project series in the mid-1990s. In the exhibition catalog “Painting and Other Stuff,” he wrote that the communities “had been built with utopian notions of beauty and good living in mind, but were unable to maintain the promise of their pastoral-sounding names.”

Most of The Garden Project paintings (which have titles such as “Better Homes, Better Gardens” and “Many Mansions”) are set directly in the projects and feature prominent signs with the names of the communities portrayed, including Wentworth Gardens, Nickerson Gardens, and Altgeld Gardens.

The series came about after Congressional hearing made plain the failures of public housing, Chicago public housing in particular, which had become synonymous with crime, drugs, and poverty. On May 30, 1995, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) exercised a federal takeover of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). On Sept. 5, 1995, then-HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros stated that CHA oversaw 11 of the 15 poorest communities in the United States.

Marshall’s painting draws on art history and explores important cultural and socioeconomic themes undergirding American progress and discrimination. “Our Town” is displayed in the museum’s contemporary art collection gallery. With the museum currently closed due to COVID-19, the VR experience provides a unique opportunity to explore the work, nearly first hand. CT

 

TOP IMAGE: KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Our Town,” 1995 (Acrylic and collage on canvas, 101 x 143 inches / 256.5 x 363.2 cm). | © Kerry James Marshall, Collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark., 2009.3

 

BOOKSHELF
“Our Town” (1995) is part of Kerry James Marshall’s The Garden Project Series. The pivotal body of work is illustrated and discussed in several volumes documenting the artist’s practice, including “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” which accompanied his 35-year retrospective, “Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff,” “Kerry James Marshall,” released by Phaidon, and “Kerry James Marshall,” published by Harry N. Abrams. “Kerry James Marshall: History of Painting” explores a recent exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery in London.

 


Just released, a narrated CBVR video invites viewers to step inside Kerry James Marshall’s “Our Town” (1995) painting. | Video by Crystal Bridges Museum

 

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