Black and part Black Birds in America: (Crow, Goldfinch),” is viewable online at David Zwirner Gallery until the end of the month.
"Black and part Black Birds in America: (Crow, Goldfinch),” is viewable online at David Zwirner Gallery until the end of the month. Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery
American painter Kerry James Marshall decided to focus on birds in his latest series of paintings, which he began working on just before the world shutdown this year. Birds? Really?, I thought. The work Marshall is best known for deals with Black figures, hierarchies of power and beauty, and popular culture. He paints large, formal pieces depicting scenes from history and everyday life. Birds seem small in comparison.

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But the first two paintings in his new Black and part Black Birds in America series currently hanging online at David Zwirner Gallery are a shade more complex than initially meets the eye. Marshall riffs on images from John James Audubon's nineteenth-century masterpiece The Birds of America, re-centering the naturalist and painter's alleged Black heritage and parsing out the ambiguities of racial identity in both Audubon's time and now. Hence, the "part Black" in the above painting's title.

It's helpful to understand Marshall's visual language to get what he's saying. In all of his works, he uses chromatic black (paint that looks black, but contains no black pigment) to depict Black people. And in "Black and part Black Birds in America: (Crow, Goldfinch)," the crow is in that flat-yet-deep shade of black, gawkily perched on the too-small birdhouse.

“There’s a disconnect between the house that’s built and the birds,” Marshall is quoted in the New York Times saying of both the crow and grackle in the other painting in the series. "It’s not designed for them, you know?”

Beneath the crow is a goldfinch—part (B)lack, but almost blending into the colorful shrubbery around it. I missed it the first few times I looked at the piece. And that, I think, is the point.

Kerry James Marshall's "Black and part Black Birds in America: (Crow, Goldfinch)" is viewable in David Zwirner Gallery's online viewing room until August 30—don't miss it.

A close up of (Crow, Goldfinch).
A close up of "(Crow, Goldfinch)." Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery