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  • Writer's pictureEyob Mergia

Better Homes, Better Gardens

I like to feature an analysis of Kerry James Marshall artwork for Black history month February “Better Homes, Better Gardens”. Better Homes, Better Gardens was painted by James Marshall, an African American artist in 1994. This work is made on an un-stretched canvas measuring 100 × 142 in 254 × 360.7 cm. He combined acrylic and collage. It currently hangs at Denver Art Museum in America. This work is part of his series of Garden project in which he paints the reflection and the complexity of social life in a black culture in America. However when asked to describe this painting, Marshall replays, “Garden Project.” The paintings in this series portray scenes that suggest the complexity of life in low-income housing projects. They are rich in references to art history, socially and historically. These paintings are “loaded with contradictions. That’s what makes work exciting.”

His subjects here are two black figures, a male and female walking in the walkway through the grassy area surrounded by the larger institution building. In the subjects’ faces, one can sense feelings of unease and insecurity. Although it is difficult to appreciate from a computer screen, it is a powerful image because the dominant distinct blackness of there faces and hands in a somewhat contrasting background of the relatively bright colors used in the painting. The artist used similar colors in his earliest works using raw black color for the face and body. The color of their skin is the loudest and most striking things about the painting. Marshal purposely made his subjects pop out by balancing it with the use of repetitive white colors on curtains in the windows of the large buildings, on signboard and white flat and hard to see grid like squares and splotches of Paint on the top. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to the middle of the composition by the color perspective and balance. This composition is complex and needs to be carefully looked at because it is systematically balanced. The level of details and brightness on the left side has a board with large writings that draws the viewers towards the left side of the painting. It deflects the viewers’ attention from the subject who otherwise would look like they are leaving the composition because of their location on the painting.

Better Homes, Better Gardens looks like a traditional classical art mix with abstract element and has some unknown motives. In this painting Marshal uses mix deep color plate for each element except the skins color, he uses raw black color. Marshall said, “The color of their face is non-negotiable. Although, this color gives the figures a position of power, the “ultra-black” skin color makes their facial features difficult to see, making the figures nearly invisible.” The young couple is holding each other tightly to represent oneness, true love, caring and humanity also movement in time.

This place that he painted gives the viewer a sense of being familiar to a place like that, even though one may never have been to Illinois before. Marshal said, “This is the official designation of the public housing site in the state of Illinois. The idyllic setting that Marshall has created is challenged by the presence of this bureaucratic code.” He gives us so much information about what it seems like in Wentworth gardens life style. Also, it seems as though the male is leaving the place while the woman next to him is loving trying to convince him of perhaps not leaving Wentworth Gardens. The background information is telling us about his artificially or racially imposed limitations of identity attributed to him as a black person in society. On his face, one can see hope, certainty and confidence with the direction he has decided on in his path.

Marshall, prefer to create perspectives only by outline line instead of finding the depth of colors tone, we can seen the building and the grass are also flat. The face of the figure is flat black color. He also separates each object for each element without any color reflection one to another. He spontaneously and repeatedly uses yellow dots on the grass. The blue birds are also used to focus the viewers’ attention towards the subjects.

Without the use of unknown abstracts elements, this painting could have been seen as a realistic painting. For instance, the white clouds on top of the figures seem like Christian halo. He also repeated the clouds on the top of the trees that can be symbolic for personal growth, strength and beauty of nature. In the middle the blue heart is melting and interrupting the narrative flow of the view, because painting is not frozen like a picture or one story, its unfinished process of a journey, it comes from true determination and true love in Marshall painting Better Gardens.

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