Venture into the contemporary gallery at the Birmingham Museum of Art and you are immediately struck by a massive painting by Birmingham-born, Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall. Rendered in acrylic and glitter on canvas, School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012) commands attention and draws visitors into the space.
The subject matter is familiar to those who have seen Marshall’s previous work, especially De Style (1993). While De Style is based on a specific barbershop, School of Beauty was inspired by the School of Beauty Culture near a former studio of his in Chicago. He says:
Around the corner from a studio I had on Indiana Avenue near 39th Street there’s a School of Beauty Culture. It doesn’t have the same kind of history accumulation that the barbershops tend to develop, because they teach there, they’re always updating. At the barbershops, the first thing they ever put up is still there. So it’s stuff on top of stuff on top of stuff. But this place didn’t have the history as some of the older places, the patina places get over time. But I liked the fact that it was a school of beauty and culture, the larger implications of that. (My Museum, 2013)
Born in Birmingham in 1955, Marshall and his family moved to South Central Los Angeles in the 1960s. Those cities and the social unrest he experienced in both places deeply affected his art and how he responds to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.
Marshall often discusses how he infuses his art with his sense of social responsibility. This can be seen in the deep blacks he uses for skin color as “an investigation into the invisibility of blacks in America and the unnecessarily negative connotations associated with darkness,” Marshall told Art21. He believes that artists have to earn their audience’s attention, which he has successfully done for the past three decades.
One of the most fascinating and successful things Marshall has done with School of Beauty, School of Culture is that the viewer might see different things each time he/she encounters the painting. In addition to the obvious interactions in the beauty shop, a copy of Lauryn Hill’s album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and a poster of a Tate gallery opening can be seen on the walls. Marshall also gives a nod to the Hans Holbein painting The Ambassadors with an amorphous Disney princess floating among the activities in the shop.
School of Beauty, School of Culture has been popular among visitors since its installation in January 2013. In fact, one afternoon last April, a couple was quietly married in front of the painting. After seeing the painting while on a date, they were quite affected by it—especially as it reflects their jobs as a hairstylist and a barber.
Before Birmingham, it appeared in Marshall’s 2012 solo exhibition at the Vienna Secession.
A native Chicagoan, Rebecca Dobrinski is a historian, essayist, and freelance writer and editor now based in Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to art, she has written about tattoos, books, concerts, city government, hockey, and Birmingham’s historic Oak Hill Cemetery. Her work appears regularly in Zen Dixie and Weld.