Kerry James Marshall
American, born 1955
Many Mansions

Acrylic on paper mounted on canvas
289.6 x 342.9 cm (114 x 135 in.)
Max V. Kohnstamm Fund, 1995.147

In the mid-1990s, Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall became intrigued by the frequent use of the word "garden" in the names of public-housing projects in Chicago and Los Angeles. He set out to explore the successes and failures of these developments in the series Garden Project. In these works, the artist (who has himself lived in projects in Birmingham and Los Angeles) hoped to challenge the stereotypes of public housing. "We think of projects as places of despair," he explained. "All we hear of is the incredible poverty, abuse, violence, and misery that exists there, but there is also a great deal of hopefulness, joy, pleasure, and fun."

In the background of Many Mansions loom the angular, modern towers of Chicago’s Stateway Gardens, an immense complex comprising eight high-rises. The more impersonal, official name of the housing project (IL 2-22) appears in bright red at the upper right. In the foreground, three men tend an elaborate garden; its curving, decorative forms provide a stark contrast to the straight lines and right angles of the apartment buildings behind. The white dress shirts and ties of the three young men working in the garden are intended in part to contradict the false, negative image of the African American male. The difference in scale between the tall men and the small towers makes the figures appear heroic.

Although it is full of details that suggest the grim realities of urban life, Many Mansions also reveals a sense of community. Marshall deliberately chose to depict spring, the season of hope, joy, and resurrection. At left, two bluebirds support a banner that reads "Bless Our Happy Home." Floating above the entire scene is a red ribbon inscribed with "In My Mother’s House There Are Many Mansions," an adaptation of a Biblical passage from the Book of John that reads "in my father’s house . . ." The reference expresses the warmth of home and offers a promise of happiness. Whether the springtime sweetness and religious sentiment should be taken at face value or understood as an ironic critique, however, remains an open question.