Kerry James Marshall: Mastry
The Met Breuer
New York, New York
October 25, 2016 – January 29, 2017
By DAVID AMBROSE, JAN. 2017
“It was in pictures that I saw a world that looked completely different from the world outside my door.”
Kerry James Marshall quoted from Tom Keyser, Albany Times Union, 2011
What do you do if you don’t like the view from your window? If you are African American artist Kerry James Marshall, you unroll canvas, weigh anchor and set sail for more a bountiful place. The map that transported him may have been charted by many principle participants who birthed Western Art, but with his retrospective, Mastry, Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955 Birmingham, Alabama) proves himself to be one of the greatest artistic explorers of the late 20th and early 21st century.
The exhibition, which currently occupies two floors of the Met Breuer in New York through January 29th, 2017, has been skillfully curated by Ian Alteveer, Associate Curator at the Metropolitan Museum. The show of nearly 80 works (72 of them paintings) spanning 35 years of Marshall’s career comes with plenty of sundrenched lawns, flocks of songbirds, radiating setting suns, cerulean blue skies and deep blue seas. It is a visual tour de force of the painted surface. Mastery of the medium of acrylic paint has allowed Marshall to create surfaces so dense and complex that the paintings look more like oil paintings than acrylics. Marshall’s understanding of his materials is matched by his scholarly knowledge of history; both art history and world history and it is that knowledge that powers his sails and this show. But unlike his European old master predecessors, Marshall has spent his entire career breaching the Ivory Tower of the Western Art by injecting the black figure into it, and in doing so; he has given a voice to the African American experience that for centuries has remained mostly silent.
Entering the third floor gallery you are greeted two large unstretched canvases that are secured directly to the wall with nuts and boltsthrough a series of grommets. The hanging apparatus lends an unexpected air of portability to the work. You get a sense that, if need be, the paintings can get off the wall, and out of town quickly. The subject matter of both these paintings is typical to every community throughout the United States: children at play (The Lost Boys, 1993) and young men at a local barbershop (DeStyle, 1993) with one major exception, all the participants are young black males.
My initial reaction to the portraits of the children in “The Lost Boys” was that they were in some way related to the artist, perhaps even his children or grandchildren. But for all this technical mastery, if this show teaches us anything, it’s don’t judge a book by its paint covered pages. Three simples letters on two pieces of collaged book pages give the viewer the first clue to the paintings real meaning, “POW”. What I soon realized was that the children were not Marshall’s relatives, but rather children who were indirectly related to all of us: two young victims of senseless gun violence, and as a society, we all own that responsibility. Each child has a printed date as a marker of their passing. One child holds a pink toy gun while the other is seated in a race car kiddie ride. Any hope that is suggested by the swirl of a yellow ribbon wrapping around the Tree of Life is quickly quelled by the realization that it’s actually crime scene tape. The tree bears fruit, but its seeds are bullets. To bite the fruit of this tree is to ingest the poison of the epidemic of gun violence. The scene plays out on an oxblood red ground with white printed flowers that drip paint like tears.
The realization of the true meaning of The Lost Boys was like a punch to the solar plexus; one that could have been delivered by the partially obscured boxer in a photograph on the wall of “De Style”. Marshall makes frequent use of double entendre. De Style takes place in Percy’s House of Style which also makes reference the Dutch modern art movement, De Stijl with its emphasis on the primaries and flattened grid-like composition. Marshall doubles down on the irony with the placement of collaged diagram of a female sex organ in close proximity to an elongated (phallic) hairstyle and a gold ring with STUD emblazoned upon it. The customers and stylist look out at the viewer taking measure of us as much as we take measure them. This group portrait literally holds a mirrored wall to the viewer while challenging our notions of beauty and empowerment. The trimmed curls of hair on the floor come in harsh contrast to the architectonic utopian ideals of De Stijl. My thoughts ran to Norman Rockwell and his illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, but Marshall paints figures that are mere shadows of Rockwell’s outdated, idyllic view of the American Dream, one that was not accessible to Marshall or his sitters and their community.
Entering the adjacent gallery, we see the earliest work in the exhibition, A Portrait of an Artist as Shadow of His Former Self (1980), Marshall paints the sitter’s black skin in this portrait so darkly it’s initially hard to connect with any part of the figure except its whitest parts: teeth and eyes. In Two Invisible Men, (1985) Marshall, with a nod to Ralph Ellison (and Robert Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning drawing) paints a diptych of a double portrait with one ghostly sitter peering out from under a coat of white acrylic. While the other portrait of a black man slowly separates from its dark ground and becomes visible like the geometric shapes in a late black painting by Ad Reinhardt. Marshall paints black skins that are subtle and rich, but never seem watered down. They are presented as pure with little modulation of skin tone to their streamlined surfaces. It’s a black that absorbs light, yet is not the absence of color.
In the domestic scene, Slow Dance (1992-1993), a black couple embraces while sharing not only a private romantic moment, but a single pair of legs. A bandolier of musical notes swirls around them gathering roses from the room’s wallpaper pattern and seems livelier than either participant. The modest apartment with its meager meal creates a sense this scene was born both in and out of servitude.
On the fourth floor, the second half of the exhibition unfolds like a great altarpiece with nine large-scale outdoor scenes that present a time capsule of the African American experience in the 1960’s. In Watts 1963,(1995) a nearly ten foot tall by eleven foot wide acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas, three black children, two boys and one girl, huddle in the foreground on a huge expanse of a lawn with a palm tree and a sign for Nickerson Gardens in south-central Los Angeles (where Marshall relocated to with his family as a child). Each child is held in place by a black oval on the grass that seems to have more in common with holes than naturalistic shadows. The young girl in French braids held in place by a pair of elastic bobbles appears to flash gang signs with each hand as she strides forward while one boy lies in the fetal position and the other is on his knees behind him. Bluebirds carry a white bandolier that ominously reads, “Here we rest” and that rest may actually be a final resting place.
In the adjacent gallery, Marshall casts his eyes back to the civil-rights struggle. In Memento #5 (2003), a black woman appears to draw a curtain and the decade of the 1960’s to a close. The painting is done in grisaille and the semi-transparent curtainis made of thin columns of segmented, silver glitter that separates her room from our space. Is she closing that curtain on the 1960’s or is she attempting to escape from behind it? The longer I looked, the more the curtain felt like the bars of a prison cell or cage and the young woman used her brute strength to bend the bars.The columns of glitter brought to mind Frank Stella’s aluminum tape studies that ushered him from his Black Paintings of 1959 to shaped Aluminum Paintings begun in 1960. Four heads of slain civil rights leaders are presented above her. The three to her left, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy are in a billowing cloud like Renaissance putti while Malcolm X, gazing at the three, is presented alone, absent a soft landing of a cloud pillow.
As the show draws to a close, we see Marshall documenting studio practice as a means of self-determination. In The Academy (2012), an Afro-haloed black male artist’s model in a jock strap holds a clinched fist in the air echoing the pose of U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Summer Olympics of 1968. But unlike Smith and Carlos whose eyes were downcast, Marshall’s model stares directly at us from his model stand. A golden glitter rope hangs with a knot at its end like an exclamation point to his left. The knot putting to rest any doubt the rope will be used for another, and darker, purpose.
In Untitled (2009), a large scaled acrylic on PVC panel, we see a black woman artist holding a large, white, kidney shaped paint covered palette with a dabbed group of primaries, some pink, and a range of whites and off whites, but no black. She points her brush at the purest white on her palette. Behind her, resting on the easel is her paint-by-number self-portrait, only partially completed. She appears to gaze defiantly at the viewer, her long, wavy, straightened hair in an exploding bun. Her hair, a rich brown, is painted flame red and orange on the canvas behind her, heightening the scenes drama. But upon closer inspection you notice that she is looking not directly at us, but over our shoulder. She doesn’t share our point of view, and perhaps like Kerry James Marshall, she is still searching the horizon for a home they can truly call their own. WM
David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.view all articles from this author