Published  24/12/2016

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

Taking over two floors of the Met Breuer, this stunning career retrospective insinuates the African American narrative into the received history of art through a heroic investigation into the metaphorical, cultural and aesthetic implications of extreme blackness

Met Breuer, New York
25 October 2016 – 29 January 2017


Following the trail of tears along painful stages of pilgrimage that moved us through the horrendous abuses of slavery, the simmering rage that skewered Abraham Lincoln’s resolve to make all Americans equal, Martin Luther’s galvanizing civil rights dream, and the ensuing hypocrisy of shared amenities/divided mores that whitewashed it, the United States of America all at once and for all time has shattered the basalt ceiling. Michele and Barack Obama proved black ultimately powerful. A stream of Vogue cover girls confirmed black is beautiful. Empire brought black strut to primetime TV. Actress Viola Davis and diva Beyoncé paired black indelibly with talent and star-power, Hamilton rapped our revered founding father back to his Caribbean roots, and the influential Fashion Institute of Technology museum has opened an exhibition about the “significant, but often unrecognised impact on fashion of black designers. Unrecognised no more! As crowned by Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, the Smithsonian’s stunning Museum of African American History and Culture has enthroned both legacies in Washington DC’s hallowed National mall. Lawrence of Arabia’s “glamour of strangeness” now translates as the glamour of black.

To fully partake of the glory of Mastry, come with this new understanding to the marvel of a show that has taken over the Met Breuer museum until 29 January (after which it goes to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; 12 March – 2 July 2017). Kerry James Marshall has not worked in obscurity. Born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama at the dawn of the civil rights conflagration, relocated with his family to Los Angeles at the time of the Watts riots, Marshall packed up the memories and migrated north to Chicago, where he has been painting, sculpting, teaching and shaping his view of the world to critical acclaim for 36 years. The work itself, though – albeit fully accessible, shown and collected – has not, until now, been fully seen. It is this cultural condition – of black existence not visible and thereby of black thought not mattering – that drives Marshall’s heroic effort to lend majesty to ignored lives. It is Marshall’s mastery (referencing by the show’s title both his ongoing comic strip addressing the fallout of slavery and his debt to Old Masters) that makes these lives finally visible by inserting them indelibly into the western pictorial canon.

Postpone the metaphysics of Marshall’s achievement for a second encounter, and let the first overpower you with the Glamour of Black. Gorgeous, monumental paintings stretch across the galleries of two floors – literally, in some instances, as Marshall took from the abstract expressionists the idea of nailing the unframed canvas to the wall.

Deceptively guileless and often peopled with the bustling activity of a magnified Grandma Moses, the colourful narratives that Marshall builds from collaged paper, acrylic applied with brush and palette knife, interventions effected with foam, sponge and fabric, and the negative space of bared canvas, are at first glance uplifting and easy on the eye. Marshall had a happy childhood and loving parents who focused on easing life for him and his siblings even through the years they lived in the projects – the low-income housing so unkind to the poor, but so rich in the neighbourhood doings that were to inform so much of his work with the exuberance and irony that have come to define it. The majesty of the history paintings derives from their size and the regal positioning of the subjects, be they neighbours or avatars, who command the spotlight of whichever drama is staged for them. Their beauty derives from a sure palette and honed technique that skilfully work old tropes into new emotions. School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012), for example, is just that – the beauty of colour on steroids serving to profile black accomplishment. And how gladdening the flag-waving celebration of Bang (1994), which gathers children by a white picket fence, tidy lawn and sun umbrella for a barbecue bannered with the promise “We Are One”!

It is the breach of such promise with its unsettling ambivalence that conditions Marshall’s mastery and brings urgency to a career that our racially charged politics has made so of the moment. Does “bang” infer more than fireworks? In the portraits, are those haloes or targets, scarring stigmata or saviour Red Crosses? Are those smudges and blobs a wall pattern, puffs of cigarette smoke or bullet holes? Take Past Times (1997) – its very title referencing both the idyll of African Americans sporting crisp whites for the leisure pursuits of tennis, golf, boating, water-skiing and croquet, and the probability of all being but a dream, as conveyed by the radio playing the Temptations’ Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me). In Memento #5 (2003), the curtain is brought down on a white president, but on a black preacher equally. And as you ease into that all’s-well-with-the-world joy of Our Town (1995), depicting a seemingly middle-class black community flourished with bluebirds and flowers, a girl in her American flag uniform running to school with her dog, and a boy on a shiny red bicycle – wait, not so fast! The words in her thought bubble are blocked out, as are the windows of their homes, and ribbons commemorating the war-dead circle the tree trunks. What’s actually going on here? Whose town is it really? This is history corrected, via allegory that draws on coded references and imagery to impart the true impact of lives disregarded.

Much of the loaded iconography is accessible: In The Land That Time Forgot (1992), tulips, a Dutch portrait, gold nuggets and a Goldener Hirsch stand-in for the tapestried Unicorn represent trading-company profiteering and colonial villainy. Even in less elaborate works the irony is palpable, charging the portraits through a close reading of the details – a lost shoe, or nails that only red polish renders visible. One particularly moving painting, SOB, SOB (2003), shows a girl hugging the carpet of a mansion near shelves stacked with books about forced African migration as sobs rise from her thought bubble, pitting the despair of a black maid, perhaps, over not being able to own a nice house like this one, against an S.O.B (son of a bitch) anger at the back history that brought her here.

It’s this ironic ambivalence, in the end, that elevates the work above outcry. Whether he is portraying domestic romance or racial violence, Marshall’s intention is less to disrupt than correct. To that end, he set out to investigate the aesthetic of extreme blackness. There are no words for the emotional resonance Marshall pulls from the visual conceit of pitch black, deftly layered from variously applied coats of ivory black, coal black and mars black. Playing on the literal invisibility of black, a dark canvas of 2003 paints out a scene to eyes that might never adjust to it. Raising the invisibility of black beyond pain to allegory, Marshall’s heart-stopping juxtapositions to white address every prejudice of western iconography; an early interpretation of the novelist Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that is labelled “Self-portrait” nails the stereotype of black faces identified by the whiteness of their eyes and flash of white teeth; black bodies are given shape with white shirts and sneakers; black sexuality is conveyed by a full-breasted white bra, and a white jockstrap pulled suggestively down by too dark a blackness to make out a hand. More subtle are the allusions to reverse superiority; the only black on the palette of one of Marshall’s imagined artist-portraits is the hand holding it: the only Caucasian portrayal is of the head of the slave-owner murdered by his escaped slave, Nat Turner.

Most joyous is Marshall’s celebration of the richness of black with figures that anchor a multicoloured world of curtains, carpeting, party dresses and freshly mown grass. Most commanding is the black built to a shine for heroic portraits that anticipate Kehinde Wiley’s with riffs on Napoleon and – scaled up to topple the decorator’s blackamoor off his faux pedestal – the Moors’ mighty Othello, so that black might now be seen as not only beautiful, but prevailing.

Stopping in front of the tender rendering of Harriet Tubman, it struck me that only a white functionary could have favoured the ugly image of this civil rights heroine that will replace the abusive Andrew Jackson on the US’s $20 banknote.

Kudos to the curators for inviting Marshall to select from the Metropolitan Museum’s vast collection for a mini-exhibition that presents as the artist’s notebook – although decoded by you, since no answers are posted. Did the artist select the Henri Matisse painting of Marguerite Wearing a Hat for the metaphor of black fur embracing the white skin of privilege? Did he borrow the grid appearing in several of his works from this early Frank Stella portfolio (Black Series ll)? Does the triptych by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi speak to another culture’s appreciation of black power?

Inspired, too, is the installation, which leads from the pounding march of monumental paintings to the wraparound Rhythm Mastr comic strip, to such brilliant pairings as that of the two vacuums – one of the artist with the cleaner, the other of white eyes and teeth framed alongside a blank space.
Not all the canonical works address prejudice and injustice. The most irresistible, strewn with hearts, hugs and pets, read as memories of shared laughter, small kindnesses and large hearts. In these universal portrayals of good times, the iconography seems less urgent. So deft, though, are his ploys to plant the black figure in the western canon that, when you do get the references, they delight; a claw-footed ottoman suggests Versailles; a happy family sailing off to a faraway island frames its message of hope in an homage to Winslow Homer; the Chris Ofili cameo recalls the government’s misguided attempt to remove his controversial portrait of the Virgin from a museum show; and how embracing the self-contained scenes of the Vignette series, which work allusions to Andrew Wyeth and Fragonard into unabashed Valentines! Scan De Style (1993), the magnificent barbershop scene witnessed by the artist from the street, for the fragments of words reflected backwards in a mirror and images reworked by the glare on the windowpane that free-associate the title as alluding to both the elaborate hairdos bestowed on the well turned-out gentlemen and the De Stijl art movement, espoused by Piet Mondrian, whose geometrics and colours predominate here. This is a high intellect at work, supported by a broad knowledge of western history and classical representation.

Some of the ideas translate less readily. You may need the wall text to explain the red candle in the foreground of The Lost Boys (1993) as mourning the flexed power of black adolescence cut down by the police.  But best not to overanalyse: given Marshall’s overriding power of composition and imagery, parsing the details will feel academic, and a literal reading will diminish the emotion unleashed by the work in its totality. You can come to this show tabla rasa and nonetheless be gobsmacked.

Speaking to Marshall’s command of other media, there are nods to video, sculptural works involving leather, plaster and metal, and, more extensively, photography – the most interesting being the shots taken with ultraviolet light as a corrective to the commercially produced film of the day that was calibrated to best render Caucasion skin tones.

All, though, fall far short of the canvas: Marshall’s brush rules. So masterful is his command of figurative narrative painting that even the later addition of glitter, in so many other hands a cheap gambit, serves to exalt his subject, or, as with his snappy signature, to sign a confident career. Only his more recent flirtation with Rorschach abstraction seems more like an experiment than an evolution; although high in energy and bursting with colour, they fail to convey more than an artist’s prerogative. Still, if that’s where this great American master wants to go, give them a look, then circle back to the great De Style that will walk out of the show in your head.


Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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