Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Impression of Marlon James' 'King Yellowman'

Marlon James, detail of 'King Yellowman', Source: The 2014 Jamaica Biennial Catalogue, The National Gallery of Jamaica
When the British Broadcasting Service [BBC]was first set up in 1927 its mission was to 'educate, inform and entertain'. Successful Art institutions such as Tate Modern, [currently the most visited Modern Art museum in the world ] might subscribe to something similar because viewing Art has become big business with entertainment seen as very much central to that project.  But Art in the past was called upon to do a great deal more, such as to illuminate and  inspire, glorify and celebrate, also to move and sometimes, to redeem.  How useful are any of these criteria for looking at Art today when relevance to the contemporary moment,  as articulated by a culturally diverse and globally connected world, is so overwhelmingly prized?

Such thoughts were circulating on a recent visit to the Jamaica Biennial where I was struck by a work which supremely fulfills many of the above mentioned criteria. Hanging in the central hall under the stairs, it is approached without warning or fanfare and were it not so distinguished, might easily be overlooked.  The work itself shows the head and torso of a man sunk in stygian gloom apparently standing in a room but gazing beyond it,  engrossed in his own thoughts, and lit only by a tiny crack of light on a narrow strip of his shoulder, neck and hat.  A stray speck of light somehow creeps round to the other side of his head and catches the pale eyelashes of his left eye but this is about all the light that is permitted in a drastically subdued tonal register.

Marlon James, King Yellowman, Source: The 2014 Jamaica Biennial Catalogue, The National Gallery of Jamaica
No one looking at this portrait could mistake its mood for anything less than deeply lugubrious and this impression is enhanced by the subfusc tones of the man's clothing, which is rakishly respectable, and of the space itself, where the air feels heavy, and still.  The sober brown palette simultaneously endorses and effaces the personality before us.  It's impossible to tell whether a doorway, dimly visible behind him offers any way out.

The truly remarkable thing about this work by Marlon James is its severe restraint.  James has granted us precious little visual excitement and only the minimum of information as to the man's identity except of course in the title of the piece, 'King Yellowman'. It is a mark of the work's universality however that we are in no need of any more information in order to bring our own sympathies to bear on the immense sorrow before us.  Nothing extraneous has been allowed to intrude or distract us from this overwhelming quality, there is nowhere to go and nowhere to hide.  Within this hermetic space we are forced to confront the limits of our own compassion and in doing so summon up from ourselves our own equivalences of kind and degree. Surely only the stony-hearted could turn away from such a work unaffected. 

James is known for his many remarkable portraits, often of the troubled, disaffected or marginal among us. Typically these photographs are made, not taken, and involve complex transactions and negotiations between artist and subject which leave their trace in the resulting image.  This latest example is no exception, its introspection, resignation and inner despair, glimpsed and intuited, is undeniably of the moment. Whilst it bears no superficial resemblance to the typical celebrity portrait it offers more than a hint of the strains, insecurities and perils suffered by many who inhabit them, whose public and private image frequently diverge. A glance at Yellowman's biography would reveal that he has experienced more than his fair share of life's vicissitudes. In this work, James has managed to convey most of them with the utmost circumspection and skill.

- Prudence Lovell


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