Although Marshall is known primarily as a painter, his work encompasses drawing, printmaking, sculpture, and installation. All of his production is characterized by hybridity; he weaves together elements from Western and African art history, classical mythology, film history, comic books, and civil rights monuments and events. If his strategies are hybrid, his aim is focused: “to articulate the cultural, social, and political history of black people in America.” Marshall’s own relationship to the civil rights movement may account for his commitment. He lived in Birmingham, Alabama, at the time of the 1963 church bombing and near the Watts area of Los Angeles during the 1965 riots, and he went to junior high school a few short blocks from the Black Panthers headquarters in L.A.
Marshall has often turned his attention to conflicting conceptions of black beauty. In this study Marshall critiques conventions of femininity while revealing his interest in tradition—particularly that of European modernism, from Paul Gauguin to Odilon Redon. This large, dense, and carefully worked drawing depicts a dark-skinned mermaid half immersed in a pool of shimmering water. She looks boldly and directly at the viewer, catching us with her gaze in our own acts of voyeurism. Typically, the figure of a mermaid evokes a mythic ideal of white beauty. Challenging preconceptions, Marshall offers “a stylized representation of a beauty that [is] unequivocally black.”
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 132.