Kerry James Marshall, Great America, 1994
Acrylic and collage on canvas, 103 x 114 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee
© Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Great America is contemporaneous with Marshall's well-known Garden Project (1994–1995), a series of paintings based on housing projects with “gardens” in their names, such as Nickerson Gardens in Watts, where he grew up. In those works, Marshall sought to convey the dignity and complexity of lives set within difficult circumstances. In Great America he re-imagines a boat ride into the haunted tunnel of an amusement park as the Middle Passage of slaves from Africa to the New World. What might in other hands be a work of heavy irony becomes instead a delicate interweaving of the histories of painting and race. The painting, which is stretched directly onto the wall, creates a screen or backdrop onto which viewers project their own associations triggered by the diaphanous yet powerful imagery.