The swinging pendulum of Kerry James Marshall’s work keeps us off balance.
Kerry James Marshall: Mastry Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, NY through January 29, 2017.
By Charles Giuliano
The retrospective Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, installed on two floors of New York’s Met Breuer, richly confirms that, at the age of 61, Marshall is among our top-tier African American artists. Deeply rooted in the American tradition of genre, history painting, and social realism, his work is riveting and evocative, though it may be regarded by some as conservative when compared to the cutting edge of contemporary art.
Still, wherever you slot him, Marshall has created large, complex, dense works whose clarity, precision, and insight affirm that ‘black lives matter.’ Here and there his teeth positively flash as they make their biting attack on racism in America. More significantly, however, he has put the prosaic life of everyday black people front and center in epic works that are being celebrated on the walls of major museums.
It is likely that the work will be seen very differently by white and black audiences. It represents, for most, an intensive immersion in an unfamiliar world. But for people of color his art offers gripping signifiers.
There is a connection between these vignettes from Marshall and the Century Cycle of ten plays by the late dramatist August Wilson. While Marshall conveys daily life in housing projects, homes, and beauty parlors in Los Angeles and Chicago, Wilson set his plays in a black neighborhood in his native Pittsburgh.
In a 60 Minutes interview, Denzel Washington, who directed and stars in a new film version of Wilson’s play Fences, explained that “it’s not about race. It’s about culture.” That subtle but important difference is not readily apparent to museum visitors or theatre audiences. Deeply rooted in language, music, and art, the culture was initially generated for self protection. It can be heard in the codified, hip, ironic, and often hilarious manner in which black people talk to and about each other. Occasionally, the presence of anger is sharp and specific, but more often it is not.
This overview of Marshall’s work contains both the subtle and the overt. In the running narrative of a series such as “The Garden Project,” we see folks and kids, at work and play, going about their business. They ride bikes, play games, swim, water ski, and sail. Then there are the jump-off-the-wall, maximum impact, self-consciously gotcha paintings, like “Portrait of Nat Turner With the Head of his Master.” It is included in a room that contains portraits of heroes, martyrs, terrorists, and assassins. It includes a view of Harriet Tubman with her husband. There are surprises: what to make of the inclusion of Julian Carlton, an estate worker originally from Barbados? He was employed by Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen (Wisconsin); shortly after being fired, he went on a rampage, murdering Wright’s mistress, Mamah Borthwick, her two children, and several other people. He torched the building before attempting to take his life by swallowing acid. Carlton died several days later while in custody. Marshall’s brooding portrait is of an actor who portrayed Carlton.
The swinging pendulum of Marshall’s work keeps us off balance. It can be as evocative and heart warming as a delta blues song or as scorching as a Molotov cocktail. There is a series of portraits of young black men wearing hoodies. They reference the young, gifted, and black men who have been gunned down by cops. You look at the images and speculate what might have been. In an exercise in ironic self reflection, Marshall created a series of imagined black artists. We see these men and women working with enormous easels; the sardonic intent is to recall self portraits by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Judith Leyster in their studios.
In “The Garden Project” the compositions are particularly dense and busy. There is a lot going on here, including signage and floating banners with text. You can’t help but wonder about the occasional splotches of paint. The New York Times critic speculated that they may represent bullet holes.
In some of Marshall’s most evocative works he takes us into homes and beauty parlors. In “De Style” (perhaps a riff on the Dutch movement di Stijl) we view several customers having their hair styled in an outrageous manner. A client seated in the chair is being given a more conventional cut.
The painting “Souvenir 1” is located in a well decorated, neat, middle-class living room. Within there’s a woman — with outstretched gold angel wings — bent over a coffee table. On the wall is a framed picture of J.F.K., Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King with the text “We Mourn Our Loss.” Set in a proscenium-like design above her is a banner proclaiming “In Memory Of.” Over those words is a panorama of portraits and labels for black leaders and martyrs.
The retrospective includes early works as well as experiments, the latter representing a range of paths not followed. Another part of the show includes works that Marshall choose to exhibit from the permanent collection. There are old masters as well as earlier African American artists, including outsider artist Horace Pippin and the imposing print of John Brown by Charles White. Surveying those works and others, it is easy to conclude that Marshall has an astute and pragmatic grasp of art history.
His sense of the past can generate sardonically amusing connections. For example, one of his paintings features several people sailing on a sloop. The composition and arrangement of the figures evoke such classic American masterpieces as “Breezing Up” by Winslow Homer and the MFA’s “Starting Out After Rail” by Thomas Eakins. The esoteric references are an inside joke that had me doubled over.
That use of satiric humor suggests how Marshall can be politically au courant, while remaining (arguably) stylistically conservative, even reactionary. Perhaps the duality reflects his understanding of the demands made by his primary audience. After all, congregations demand that their pastors “Make it plain.”
Marshall’s figures are clear and didactic. There is a poster-like flattening with little or no chiaroscuro. He does not seduce the eye with slick trompe l’oeil. Nothing is allowed to mess up or complicate the message. One finds in Marshall echoes of other artists who believe in telling it like it is: Jacob Lawrence, Phillip Evergood, or Ben Shahn.
Charles Giuliano, founder/publisher of www.berkshirefinearts.com, is an art historian and former writer/critic/editor for Art New England, The Boston Herald Traveler, Boston After Dark, The Avatar, and The Patriot Ledger. He taught at New England School of Art at Suffolk University, Boston University, Salem State University, UMass Lowell, and Clark University.