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by Christian Rabin

Christian Rabin is an independent scholar, writer and musician.  The unifying thread of his work can be seen as both an exploration of the “blueing” nature of Black thought and an exploration of François Laruelle’s assertion that: “Black is not in the object or the World, it is what man sees in man, and the way in which man sees man…it is the only “color” inseparable from the hyper-intelligible expanse of the Universe.”He is presently at work on his debut novel and a book-length treatment on the intersection between black studies, mysticism, and continental thought. 

The nature of the painting is undeniably jarring, particularly for our current moment.  Its dislocating semiotic politics –the feeling of intimate disturbance it provokes – almost identical to that which strikes you when you come upon those racist artefacts of the past in some unexpected place: their echoing clichés both utterly ridiculous and yet hovering in your field of vision, lingering around your body with the claustrophobic closeness of a hallucinatory episode. You know you are not that, and yet — there is a stubborn temporality in these images, like a stranded paleographic stratum of life come once again to the haunting surface. These racist portraits of antiblackness stubbornly persisting, like the stain of a prehistory one cannot fully escape, a filmic screen of hatred sliding across the skin of all things.  Indeed, it reminds us of the fact which we must come to understand belatedly, even if we rarely – or ever – state it nakedly, voice it outright: everything is at stake in an image, as if life and death hinged upon it.  Even beyond Lacan’s radical assertion that the image functions as the threshold of the visible world – it feels as if it is also the defining limit through which participation in and ownership of that world is decided.

Nonetheless, one gets the sense that Marshall, for his part, is not unaware of all of this:

“When I made that picture, I think I understood for the first time that the image in it functioned linguistically. Which is why I always said that the idea of blackness operated rhetorically. This materially black figure has to be situated within the larger context as a linguistic figure amongst other linguistic figures, or as a pictorial figure within the context of other pictorial elements….When I insert a figure into a painting space, I have to consider all of the things that it means and then construct, edit and revise in order to reach its maximum effect so that blackness becomes a noun, not an adjective.” (Artspace).

Marshall’s image disturbs and disrupts because of the resonating power it still possesses, in part due to its conversation and relation to other images to which we are all unfortunately far too familiar.  As if by some vibratory force, the painting excites a barred series of crises in the representations of raciality.  Indeed, the composition of the central figure seems to accentuate its own perilous existence, haunted by its tenuous emergence, its impending disappearance: “In it, the viewer encounters the titular artist on the very threshold of (in)visibility, more shadow than self, more darkness than light, more absence, it seems, than presence. More black than white, that is, if we understand black to equal the absence of light.” (Roelstraete 47).   As Lanka Tatterstall writes, these figures of Marshall’s “are impenetrable; everything (except the eyes) is epidermis, external.  The “issue of blackness” is one of projection, stereotype, fantasy, and resistance.” (60)

The jarring nature of this early painting by Marshall is only exacerbated when one compares it with the ensuing figural work for which he is justly well known, namely a vibrant black portraiture, one characterized by a striking current of presence, of unrepressed power and energy.  And yet, the Portrait, by multiple accounts (including that of Marshall himself) represents a critical generative point of inception in his career, one in which the image at stake is explicitly identified as the necessary ancestral precursor of the later vital and richer figures.  How is this possible? How do we account for this stunning difference?  How can such affirming images arise from what appears at first glance to be a mere paraphrase of those stereotypically racist images that still haunt us like a vampiric nightmare?

It is clear that we need to recognize what Marshall takes from Ellison and its importance in deciphering the power of this image, namely an inspiration to return to the figure, but under the transformational impact of the dynamic that the latter so incisively explores in his great novel: the nightmarish liminal zone that blackness is forced to occupy, one where non-existence and invisibility enforce a native dispossession and paradoxically embodied disappearance.  The power of Marshall’s painting – under Ellison’s tutelage – is in no small measure due to way it invokes particularly the shadowy career of blackness as invisible and forcefully rendered so by the mask of stereotype. As Mbembe writes of the process of perception by which this invisibility is enforced, the victims of racism are “imprisoned in a silhouette,” (33) subjected to a hallucinatory doubling under which they are dissipated and lost:

“Race and racism also have the fundamental characteristic of always inciting and engendering a double, a substitute, an equivalent, a mask, a simulacrum. A real human face comes into view. The work of racism consists in relegating it to the background or covering it with a veil. It replaces this face by calling up, from the depths of the imagination, a ghost of a face, a simulacrum of a face, a silhouette that replaces the body and face of a human being.” (32)

Mbembe’s remarks thus help clarify in some measure the unease that the painting generates in us, that to confront it is to confront an essential and infinitely recurring mismatch of recognition.  As if the outright bluntness of the stereotypical markers and signs that the painting deploys, themselves cipher Mebembe’s “exterior envelope” of “nonsense, lies, and fantasies” (39) invoking for us to see – like an act of conjuration – the false skin cohering to form the haunting surface of a fully racialized black flesh, itself the substance and solidity of the white world. 

We should also note that there is an excess of significance in the title of the painting, whose paradoxical gesture of ownership is destabilized by the content, the very racist materiality of the image to which we have already referred, creating its field of semantic incomprehensibility. On the one hand, there is the clear reference to Joyce’s famous bildungsroman (both in the construction of the image and its titular reference), one that clearly invokes, by way of a sardonic hint, the great modernist author’s project of heroic self-creation and self-election.  But on the other hand, there is the strange second half of the picture’s title: A Shadow of His Former Self – one whose temporal references only further foment a paradoxical confusion. The pun employed here by Marshall causing a slippage that defies clear placement, itself recoiling, ricocheting back on the purported gesture of ownership, entailing a multilayered, multivocal, and equivocally ambiguous irony haunting the image.  Indeed, who is the shadow and what is the nature of its identity?  Who assumes the right of speaking of a former self, and who presently take ownership for all of this?

All of this leads us to the very heart of the picture’s challenge or its essential question, one that deconstructs the very frame of the western painting as one characterized as Marshall does, as a tradition of ‘picture making.”  The schematic nature of the image, Marshall’s account of his procedural attention to detail in reproducing and recreating it, the flat zero degree of the morphology of the figural form, they all point to the beginning of an effective counter-staging on blackness:

“when I did that Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, even though it’s a really simplified figure, I designed that space, and I structured it so that every mark, every shape, everything – it fits into a place, because it’s supposed to perform a certain kind of function.  That was the first time I had really applied all of that information to something that I felt in control of.  And I felt in control of it because I felt like I really understood.  Now I understand how this works.  This is how they do it.  And so that was the picture that represents that.”

It is as if what I am hunting here is there only in the unsaid, lingering in between the notes.  Straining our own chromatic ear, it is like one can hear a forbidden intent: the artist attempting to reproduce himself in the moment of the White Other – haunted and captured by the utter stereotype that hijacks any moment of mutual recognition.  The self-portrait is thus anything but; it is instead a clinical and pathological account of the very powers that cause the distortive reflective and projective images of blackness. The painting thus challenges the very veracity of the genre of self-portrait itself and the ideal of the mirror that informs it, the philosophical miscarriage of a whole regime of representing and the sovereignty contained therein. 

And yet, the Portrait nonetheless functions in Marshall’s work as a gateway to something else, a clue to what one might call black negentropy, or an affirmation beyond the wages of an anti-blackness that enforces its precarious non-existence, its utter dispossession. Indeed, Marshalls identifies the work as  “a way of starting at a zero degree” that “it was schematic.” (Artspace)  It as if thematically, in terms of the materiality of its content, the work represents a first and decisive encounter of the artist with the forces that prevent the emergence of the black figure under its own terms.  Indeed, just the aim of rendering these figures pushes Marshall into a landscape where form, content, and meaning become mutually imbricated in the problematics of painting blackness itself.   The image of the Portrait thus achieves its opening through a type of perfect mimicry of the phantom of the racialized stereotype (itself the thing that imprisons us) where Marshall nonetheless uncovers an itinerary into its beyond-space, in transcension of it.   To achieve this, I contend we might consult the following passage from Francois Laruelle:

“In order to make out the face of the Adversary, it is necessary to mix with him and to suffer the extent of his gaze to the point that he believes himself to have grabbed hold of you.  Of the two of you, however, only you know the gaze is nothing, the you are from the mirror and the speculation and that you are just playing with that haunted game which wants to capture yours.” (17-18)

Such a passage necessitates a series of observations, ones that I feel help characterize the unique success of Marshall’s painting, while resonating profoundly with Joyce’s own evocation of silence, exile, cunning from his Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man:

First, who is Laruelle addressing here but the victim in the aftermath of that victimization, and not the master of philosophical discourse who is usually the audience of such remarks?  And who is this victim but she who has been precisely violated through the agency of speculation itself, through capture, as object or thing, constrained by the images that relay or structure that speculation? Who speaks here but she who has exiled into the mute regions of silence?

Second, Laruelle refuses to exhort the victim to become yet another master, which would be itself a covert ascription of guilt to the victim as if her victimization were due to either the repressed desire for mastery (a sort of masochistic apprenticeship) or to an inability to recognize the game of master and slave as the lone sovereign logic the world.  No, Laruelle instead instructs the victim to follow upon the epiphany that her own status has provided in terms of insight into the very spectacle itself.  It is ironically the victim of the gaze to whom he speaks, the one who knows the full violence of its power, the weight of its influence to bring life or death, who also knows its illusory nature best. The victim knows that she is not the which the speculation has made her to be, that the true weight of her existence lives in excess beyond the terms of visibility that the spectacle constructs, that attempts to impose victimization as a destiny or rightful occurrence. Laruelle thus lays out the play or gambit by which the game of the visible is entered in a way that the master, the perpetrator can never understand. 

Third, what Laruelle invokes here is not transparency but a play of opacities.  He invokes not the demand that the victim finally emerges into the light thus be fully represented for the eye of the voyeur who is yet another vehicle for the master, thus re-inscribing herself, all over again, in what Saidiya Hartman has famously called the scene of subjection. Instead, Laruelle counsels us to remain one with the forbidden remnant of being that is not capable of becoming transparent in the encounter of sight, that cannot be brought into this light.  By contrast, Laruelle advocates a subtle game by which lack of recognition becomes a weapon to compel the hidden master to appear, to be exposed from beyond the curtain of epistemic weaponry and optical machinery that hides him.  Laurelle’s irony is intriguing: the one who is most captured by the spectacle (like Lacan’s infant) is the one who is most captivated by it.  By contrast, the one who is the freest from this spectacle is potentially the one who made into the flesh of that spectacle, in the image of that spectacle. 

Laruelle thus initiates us into a trial by and through the mirror, through a counter scenography utterly different than the Hegelian one that informs the dynamics of mastery.  What such a trial entails are exactly what Marshall successfully commences in his beginning.  Marshall chooses not a flight from racist images, but from a taking up residence in the middle, in the foreground, under the rule of the focal region of the camera, before the mirror that is not our own, where the false images are most searing. He calls the spectator into the seduction of the portrait and compels, by the act of that spectator’s gaze, a rectification and heightening of stakes.

Marshall thus does not seek a type of belated introduction into that white light that would promise the naked transparency of things by which their intimate inward essence would be revealed.  In lieu of this he initiates us what we might deem the call to a black enlightenment, one building on what Glissant identifies as a “right to opacity that is not enclosure within an impenetrable autarchy but subsistence within an irreducible singularity. Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics.” (216)

As Glissant further explains:

“The opaque is not the obscure, though it is possible for it to be so and be accepted as such. It is that which cannot be reduced, which is the most perennial guarantee of participation and confluence.” (217)

Editors, Artspace. “Kerry James Marshall on Painting Blackness as a Noun Vs. Verb.” Artspace, 7 June 2017, Accessed 8 Oct. 2019.

Glissant, Édouard, and Betsy Wing. Poetics of Relation. Univ. of Michigan Press, 2005.

Laruelle, Francois, and Anthony Paul Smith. Future Christ: a Lesson in Heresy. Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

Mbembe, Achille, and Laurent Dubois. Critique of Black Reason. Duke University Press, 2017.

Roelstraete, Dieter. “Visible Man: Kerry James Marshall, Realist.” Kerry James Marshall: Mastry. Marshall, Kerry James, et al. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2016.

Tatterstall, Lanka. “Black Lives, Matter.” Kerry James Marshall: Mastry. Marshall, Kerry James, et al. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2016.

Christian Rabin

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