In 1980, Kerry James Marshall painted a carbon-black silhouette of a face, only the whites of the eyes and gleaming teeth visible. In its title and cocksure pose, “Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” recalls James Joyce’s photograph on the Penguin edition of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Painting himself as more shadow than self, absent rather than present, Marshall announced “the lack in the image bank” of Black figures in the canon, and his determination to join the modernist lineage.

From that shadow streamed not only Marshall’s crystalline virtuoso renderings of Black figures in settings of pleasure, leisure and high culture, but younger African Americans, born in the 1970s and 1980s, currently finding their own ways to portray Black experience. They dominate the National Portrait Gallery’s compelling transatlantic exhibition The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure.

Painting of a black woman in yellow striped smock holding a brush and palette and painting a picture
‘Untitled (Painter)’ (2009) by Kerry James Marshall © Courtesy the artist/David Zwirner

Marshall’s blacker-than-blacker iconography is the conceptual starting point. “Nude (Spotlight)” (2009), the figure reclining on rippling white sheets illuminated by harsh, direct light, is his dazzling retake of Manet’s “Olympia”. An assertive woman with outsized palette stars in “Untitled (Painter)” (2009); “Portrait of a Curator (In Memory of Beryl Wright)” (2009) depicts an elegant, thoughtful intellectual, glasses to hand, yellow tulip adorning her desk.

From them the show opens out to a double triumph: art that urges us to look at society differently and Black painters telling fresh stories so inventively that they are reviving the western figurative tradition.

A tremendous initial contrast is Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s expressive, dislocated heads and Amy Sherald’s stylised realism of bright colours, clean lines. Quinn’s tough guys in cowboy hats, “Homeboy Down the Block” (2018), “Buck Nasty: Player Haters Ball” (2017), “Charles Re-visited” (2015), are split apart, turned inside out, fractured, while “Father Stretch My Hands” (2021) is a frenzied, almost Baconian double portrait of fragments of the same face, eyes raised, appealing for divine help. Portraits of flux, uncertainty, vulnerability, they evoke what Quinn calls the “cacophony of experience”.

Diptych of black man’s head split into two halves that don’t match up
‘Father Stretch My Hands’ (2021) by Nathaniel Mary Quinn © Courtesy the artist/Gagosian

Sherald instead says “I paint people who I want to see exist in the world”. She soared to fame in 2018 after her commission to paint Michelle Obama. Her most dramatic piece here, “She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves” (2017), a confident, casually posed woman in a striking Technicolor tunic, is similarly a costume drama. As in the Obama portrait, the details — rainbow blocks shimmering on a lilac ground — allude to Alabama quilters’ stitched bar designs.

Sherald paints Black skin as refined grisaille, meticulously modelled in light and shadow, as in daguerreotypes. The camera, she believes, gave Black people “agency to author our own narratives”, and “by removing ‘colour’ but still portraying racialised bodies” she disarms preconceptions. As for Marshall, upbeat ordinariness is keynote to her minimalist yet monumental figures: a woman standing against her yellow bicycle, blue frock whipping around her in the breeze, in “A Midsummer Afternoon Dream” (2020); the girl in a green-striped dress boasting shiny red nails, in “A Certain Kind of Happiness” (2022).

“I refuse to be invisible” is the title of Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s breakthrough work, a response to Marshall’s “Untitled (Painter)” — “I don’t think any work has had an effect on me like that . . . It’s this woman who is unapologetically Black. Black, Black, Black” — in which bodies are formed from collages of transfer images representing the artist’s family and native Nigeria, in domestic milieux. Her work, as in the grandiloquent self-portrait with her baby screened by arabesques of Nigerian and Californian plants, “Still You Bloom in This Land of No Gardens” (2021), is becoming more and more vibrant, intricate, gorgeously patterned, fusing figure and ornamentation, ideas about identity, layers of memory.

Painting of a young black woman wearing multicoloured stripe-pattern dress and jeans
‘She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves’ (2017) by Amy Sherald © Courtesy the artist/Hauser & Wirth

Bestowing opulence on her fantastically glamorous, loftily apathetic characters in “A Grand Inheritance” (2016), “The Marchioness” (2016) and “The Adventuress Club, Est. 1922” (2016), Toyin Ojih Odutola paints skin in striated pastel, charcoal and pencil scribbles, as variable, dynamically changing, decorative, and applies similar sinewy contours to fabrics, a fur wrap, a pair of loafers, panelled or mirrored interiors. She too collapses boundaries between figure and surroundings, embedding questions about striations of class, wealth, race within lavish, labyrinthine mark-making.

Yet more fantastical, pushing from Marshall’s depiction of ordinary Black lives towards an otherworldly everyday, is the exceptionally talented Noah Davis, who died aged 32 in 2015. A disquieting poetic touch, moody muted hues and spatial complexity characterise every work, though refreshingly there is no instantly recognisable format.

“Mary Jane” (2008) is a neat, impassive child in striped pinafore and white socks framed by lush agitated foliage, a swirling abstraction menacingly alive, suggesting chaotic visions of the mind. “40 Acres and a Unicorn” (2007) refers to an unfulfilled civil war promise to award former enslaved people land and a mule. Davis’s boy riding a white mule with fanciful horn emerges, glowing, from deep darkness, a trembling horizon line just discernible — an image rich with conflicting emotions, chimeras of failed promise, solitariness, distance, hopeful dreams.

In “1975 (8)” (2013), a diver, body partly sun-bleached, huge feet thrust into the foreground, hurtles into a blue expanse, past bobbing black heads. The composition, all disorientating angles, mix of blur and sharpness, is effervescent, strange — the swimming pool a site of Black joie de vivre as potently as Hockney made it symbolise gay freedom.

Painting of a nude black female boxer in boxing gloves against tropical themed background
‘Conjestina’ (2017) by Michael Armitage © Michael Armitage

Apart from a few (too few) familiar pleasures from seminal, senior names — a single work, “Christmas Eve (Douen’s Dance)” (2007), a sensuous, serpentine couple, by Chris Ofili; just one by Denzil Forrester, the pulsating, translucent dub club bodies “Itchin & Scratchin” (2019); a pair of Hurvin Anderson’s barber shop portraits — the British artists here are weaker than the best of these arresting, conceptually cohesive Americans. The great young exception is Kenyan-British Michael Armitage: comparable to Davis in holding tensions between real and surreal, as engaged with art history as Marshall.

“Conjestina” (2017), depicting Kenyan middleweight Conjestina Achieng naked in boxing gloves, takes the freighted motif of the female nude, but here she is muscular, fraught, set against Gauguinesque tropical imagery broken by a large window; it is ambiguous as to whether she is inside or outside, and whether the tumultuous scene is her imagining.

In the complicated choreography of “Pathos and the Twilight of the Idle” (2019), screaming, flag-twirling figures flee a rally as it turns to carnage. This towering, fearful composition echoes Titian’s “Assumption”: fluffy clouds become the billowing smoke of tear gas, God is replaced by sculptures — the gleefully malevolent Shetani spirits of east African mythology. Parodying via a Renaissance icon today’s populist leaders’ use of religious or Messianic rhetoric, it’s an image for now, always and everyone: daring, subtle, ambitious — and the most sumptuous painting in this exhibition’s feast of painterly seduction.

To May 19, The show travels to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the autumn

Find out about our latest stories first — follow FTWeekend on Instagram and X, and subscribe to our podcast Life and Art wherever you listen

Source link