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Review: Marshall's 'Garden of Delights' blooms at CAM

St. Louis Garden of Delights. Kerry James Marshall.
Laurent Torno | Contemporary Art Museum | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The front room at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) is designed for experimental projects, the artist’s new, new thing. Curator Dominic Molon encourages the kind of transformation of a confined space that we have seen in the last several CAM front room exhibitions. Artist Kerry James Marshall has turned the front room into a portal leading to his Chicago neighborhood.

Marshall’s installation, "Garden of Delights," is a dramatic set designed to reflect the artist's personal experience. A theatrical faux walkway leads to an oversized, theatrical faux garden that surrounds a photograph of an alleyway view of a white clapboard family home with partially rolled up garage door and a sun-burnt lawn.

The garden is constructed from plastic. An old family photograph is at the center of each giant, plastic flower, like the capitulum of a daisy. The photograph of the house is staged as the main event around which all of the family flowers grow. The room feels like a 3D scrapbook.

Marshall’s use of photographs to represent people and plastic to represent nature suggests a comment upon the artifice of representation. Throughout Marshall’s celebrated career, he has toyed with historical forms of characterizing people, often directing attention toward racist notions of beauty.

A path of odd-shaped red, white, black and green plastic “cobblestones” leads up to the back wall installation of Marshall’s home tableau. Three empty, crumpled Flamin’ Hot Cheetos bags are arranged along the path. Marshall says the chip bags could not be left out of his Garden, as a day doesn’t go by without a couple of these rolling into his yard.

Marshall’s inclusion of these everyday things is funny but a little sad, too. Schools in New Mexico, California and Illinois have banned these “highly addictive” chips after some kids ended up in the ER with heartburn and red poop. Marshall would include those chips. He is an artist who adeptly points out the beauty present in harsh realities and refuses to accept that struggle equals tragedy.

With the installation title, "Garden of Delights," Marshall points to his own joyful experience of growing things. The voice mail recording on his home phone provides the family’s update from the garden with a report on what is currently in bloom. The exhibition is also connected to his earlier series of paintings titled "The Garden Projects" that portrayed urban public housing projects with a euphemistic “garden” in their name.

The Saint Louis Art Museum is offering a concurrent Marshall experience with a painting from "The Garden Projects" series. "Watts, 1963," which shows the artist and his two siblings in the housing authority garden where they grew up, will again go on view with the opening of the museum’s new East Building expansion on June 29.