Kerry James Marshall ‘Our Town’

There can be no shying away from the lofty aspirations of Mastry, Kerry James Marshall’s aptly-titled retrospective now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, through September 25. It then travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
To say that the show is epic merely describes the scale of storytelling that unfurls across the vast pictorial narrative that Marshall has created. We are in the realm of history painting. We are in the “School of Beauty, School of Culture.”
Marshall’s oft-stated objective, in his catalog essay and an opening seven-minute video, is to make black figures evident in art museums. Marshall claims that his paintings are not a form of self-expression; they are created “exclusively as platforms for an idea.” The idea is visibility.
In the exhibition’s opening gallery, two of the smallest paintings in the show are offered as touchstones for the larger project. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” is a mere 8 x 6 ½ inches, for which Marshall used a classical medium of egg tempera on paper, creating perhaps the smoothest surface of all the paintings on view.
With slight gradations in pigment, Marshall painted a black man with a black hat and jacket on a grey-black background. His eyes, teeth, and a triangle of his white shirt are fixed starkly within this dark shape like flickers of light within a shadow. Marshall was inspired to create the work after reading Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. He points to the book as his key to a way forward in painting.
Most of the works in the show are figure paintings and the figures, without exception, are rendered in uniform black paint. From these first barely-discernable bodies to forceful tableaux of African American life and unabashed nudes in later galleries, Mastry is an exercise in visual literacy. We are challenged to read the paintings with the imprint of art history behind our eyelids while, at the same time, we are encouraged to see them anew.
Marshall’s Garden Project series, a group of large paintings that represent scenes from public housing projects, draws on an image bank that includes Disney bluebirds and Italian frescos that depict Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. These paintings are often described as everyday images of African American life, and yet they are layered with codes, fragments and distortions that disrupt the idyllic landscapes.
“Many Mansions” is particularly haunting. Three young black men tend to flower beds where colorful baskets, filled with stuffed animals, have been placed. The abstracted dark ovals, representing their shadows, seem to possess a kind of gravitational force. It is as if these men were tending to graves, perhaps their own. A line of text on red ribbon, “In my mother’s house there are many mansions,” ties the frame.
Biblical references by way of halos, sometimes wings, adorn numerous figures in Marshall’s work—later in the exhibition, a dimly-lit side gallery is reserved for religiously-inflected works. The dark red walls (used nowhere else in the installation) traffic in the familiar tones of galleries devoted to sacred works such as illuminated manuscripts and reliquaries. The curators are signaling the artist’s own exploitation of traditional museum practices that lend power to certain works.
Marshall’s paintings are a form of institutional critique, says Helen Molesworth in her catalog essay, challenging the idea that encyclopedic museums are neutral artistic ground. He does not take the artist-as-curator route more commonly used in contemporary art but rather focuses on painting about painting in “the grand tradition of the artist as a chronicler of social truths.” Marshall makes his point: until black faces and bodies are familiar sights in museums, art history will remain incomplete.
Marshall is working from within the system. This approach is most clearly illustrated in his recent series of artists’ portraits in which black painters hold court at their easels before in-progress self-portraits, filling in their images via a paint-by-number outline. Nevermind that the patterned textiles of their clothing defy the regulated colors. Oversize palettes in their hands, flaunting saturated colors, confront the viewer as if smaller abstract paintings were inserted into the larger portraits. These paintings are nesting dolls that reveal the full range of the artist’s technical prowess.
One of the artist’s portraits in this series is currently absent from Mastry, per Marshall’s request, because it was loaned to the Met Breuer’s current Unfinished exhibition. Marshall’s painting is considered there alongside works by many so-called Old Masters such as Rubens, da Vinci, Dürer, David, Hals, Titian, Turner and Rembrandt, exploring the question of when is a painting finished. In fact, Marshall’s work is complete but it begs the question of when his artistic mission will come to fruition.
While Marshall has vaulted into some higher order of artists given space on hallowed museum walls, every canvas he makes is conscious of the propaganda and privilege embedded in those same walls. The absolute blackness of Marshall’s subjects and their formal play between visibility and visuality calls to mind the phrase Sojourner Truth printed on her carte-de-visite: “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.”
That phrase acknowledged the technology of photography and her understanding of the complicated power of selling her own image. As a former slave, her assertion of copyright over the photograph was a further movement to reclaim control of her body and its circulation.
Visitors who read the MCA exhibit’s paintings as either Marshall’s personal vision or his experience of black America miss the carefully-executed references to established art history that structure the works not only as expressive documents, but precise arguments marshaled against the highest echelons of visual culture that have long neglected depictions of black lives.

Kate Hadley Toftness

Kate Hadley Toftness investigates collection-based teaching and public programs at museums and alternative spaces with permanent archives. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.A. from the University of Chicago

Volume 30 number 6, July / August 2016 pp 36-37

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