THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by K.A. Letts
It’s spring 2021—masks are off, and we are all eager to put a big, emphatic period at the end of our pandemic sentence. Yet the scars of 2020 remain; prolonged isolation has forced many artists into an existential reexamination of their priorities and assumptions. With his solo show of figurative painting—appropriately titled “The End”—Detroit painter Justin Marshall joins in.
In his artist statement, Marshall says, “I do not recognize this country anymore, the ideals I believed I grew up with are gone and it seems as though they will never return. In retrospect I find that this is a driving force in the subject matter of my paintings.” His investigations, now at the member-operated gallery Public Pool in Hamtramck, MI, include two contrasting bodies of work that consider death, the decline of 21st century capitalist models, and the ephemerality of celebrity, all viewed in the light of recent collective trauma.
Three of the most formally satisfying artworks in “The End” tell the story, through cityscape, of social and economic transition in a city that once aspired to greatness but now struggles merely to survive.
The foreground of Andy’s Market features a frequently seen automotive artifact of Detroit. The blue Chevrolet Impala from the 1970s, carefully preserved and lovingly personalized, is a visual testament to the care and persistence with which Detroit’s inhabitants combat the forces of entropy constantly threatening the physical integrity of the city. This resistance to decay is not without cost; surrounding the car are skillfully painted signs—“411-Pain,” “Need Cash”—along with the usual invitations to self-medication. They leave the hardships of daily life in 21st century Detroit in no doubt. The light is flat and affectless, and the sky is gray. In spite of the lively visual incident in the painting, Andy’s Market is devoid of human presence.
This desolate mood is recapitulated and amplified in Speedy Greasy, which captures the empty sweep of the streetscape, populated only by automobiles. Leafless trees peeking over the top of the buildings suggest empty lots behind the commercial strip, the bleakness of the deserted scene somewhat mitigated by the cheerful yellow of the building’s façade and signage.
Occupying a central location in the gallery is Jay Dee’s Mart. Though similarly titled to Andy’s Market, this painting presents a subtle emotional contrast. Under a clear blue sky, a grand, classical block of a building—possibly a former bank—has been converted to a new use appropriate to modest present-day needs—the grand capitalism of the past yielding to the small-bore economic activity of a poor neighborhood. The elegant Greek columns have been freshly overpainted in the green, black, and red stripes of the pan-African flag, while the pattern surrounding the threshold of the building, a modified version of Buddhism’s endless knot motif, has been only partially refreshed in black and red and hints at a change in the ethnicity of the ownership.
Jay Dee’s Mart encapsulates a common urban story of ethnic transition in the city’s population and economic status over time. That this is a typically American story is emphasized by the American flag hanging on the side of the building. Even though no humans are visible in the painting, the door of the market is open, and there is an open container to the left of the entrance. What the grand architecture has lost in former dignity it gains in the implied vitality of renewed economic activity
Justin Marshall, Three Tates, 2020, acrylic, aerosol and flocking on canvas, 3@24” x 24” each. Photo: K.A. Letts.
Marshall has produced another body of work for “The End” which is conceptually ambitious, though less successful formally. In contrast to the thinly painted streetscapes, the oversize portraits of deceased celebrities and an imaginary character Marshall calls “Peter Ott,” feature curdled, heavily painted layers of acrylic over flocking that embody the ghastly effect of imperfectly embalmed corpses. These distressed—and distressing—images have an ambiguous emotional aura.
In Three Tates, nearly identical versions of Charles Manson’s murdered victim are arranged in a row. Her face is obscured by a thick, masklike puddle of amber acrylic the consistency of hard candy floating on the surface of the canvas. She seems to be peering through the barrier at the viewer, her intent unclear. In these paintings, Marshall seems to be reaching for a resolution to his perception that something has been irrevocably lost, though what that is remains obscure. These paintings have the hermetic quality of artwork produced by the incarcerated, perhaps an inevitable consequence of this year’s enforced isolation, and a comment of its own. The artist demonstrates a willingness to take risks with his work here that is to be applauded, even when the results are problematic.
Oddly enough, the heavy textures and clotted surfaces that vex the surfaces of the large portraits work better in a smaller format. Marshall’s painting Sears, while only a fraction of the size of the portraits, eloquently memorializes the end of 20th century capitalism. An abandoned big box store and derelict parking lot occupy the scene’s middle distance under a turbulently cloudy sky. The friable texture of the composition’s surface accords perfectly with the gritty grayness of the day and the ruined architecture. The empty mouth of the deserted building marks the center of a bitter architectural memorial to the demise of a certain kind of hubristic consumerism.
Justin Marshall, Milo’s Pheasant, 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 12” x 18” Photo by K.A. Letts.
But making art is inherently an act of optimism, at least from the artist’s perspective, and in “The End,” Marshall doesn’t leave us hopeless. In a graceful coda, he introduces a welcome breath of fresh air with a small picture, Milo’s Pheasant. Pheasants are a fairly common sight in post-pandemic, post-bankruptcy Detroit, where urban woodlands now flow like green rivers through the city. In this lyrical avian portrait, recently painted by the artist for his young son, beige- and green-dappled light glints off the healthy bird’s glossy plumage. The bird signifies renewal and suggests that while humans come and go, nature remains and retakes its space.
Marshall’s paintings at Public Pool mark the end of a traumatic plague year. They suggest that, like nature, artists—and people—are resilient. In spite of the past year’s suffering and isolation, they will survive and recover, experiment, fail, and succeed.
“The End” will be on view at Public Pool until June 12.
K.A. Letts is the Detroit editor of the New Art Examiner, a working artist (kalettsart.com) and art blogger (rustbeltarts.com). She has shown her paintings and drawing in galleries and museums in Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and New York. She writes frequently about art in the Detroit area.
Justin Marshall, Jay Dee’s Mart, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 48”. Photo courtesy of Public Pool.
Justin Marshall, Speedy Greasy, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 18” x 24”. Photo courtesy of Public Pool.
Justin Marshall, Sears, acrylic and flocking on canvas, 18” x 24”. Photo by K.A. Letts.
Justin Marshall, Andy’s Market, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 36” x 36”. Photo courtesy of Public Pool.
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