Kerry James Marshall Exhibition Reviewed

Kerry James Marshall Exhibition: Mastry

Black Figures and Beyond

Courtney Wilkins

Historical montages, genre paintings, hidden symbols, landscape themes, religious undertones, racial subjects, murals, glitter, comic books, mixed media and a plethora of the black figures, merely touches upon what encompasses the Kerry James Marshall: Mastry Exhibition at the Met Breuer. If you haven’t dipped in to see his works yet, you have until January 29th. At first glance, the exhibition may appear to be primarily paintings illustrating African American culture

and prejudices, from the Civil Rights movement to present day. It’s that and so much more.

The prominent theme of Marshall’s paintings is pretty much well known at this point. That is, black silhouettes with protuberant white teeth and peering white eyes. The figures are painted as stereotypical representations of black people in society. Essentially, portraying the raw and inescapable racist logic, America has enforced since 400 years ago when slavery began. To that end, it is suitable to say Marshall’s work is fearless and intentional. However, it was not the dense and radiant black silhouettes that the most compelled me to circle, and re-circle the 3rd and 4th floors of the Met- Breuer. It was versatility of Marshall’s painting voice, the entangled symbolisms, and inventive art mediums rooted within each piece. If it’s not enough to marvel in the historical depth and chilling truth of Marshall’s paintings, the viewer is also challenged with digesting the complexity and freedom of his artistic expression. 

Displaying 80 works - including 72 paintings - the exhibition begins on the 3rd floor of the Met Breuer with two large layered compositions. Both are acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas. On your right is De Style, 1993, which spans a little over 8 by 10 feet, and frames five black male figures in a barbershop. There is no doubt Marshall was deliberate in choosing the title. De Style or its original spelling De Stijl comes from the Dutch artistic movement of 1917 in Amsterdam. The De Stijl enterprise consisted of artists and architects promoting work of strong abstraction, but reducing numerous forms of color. The emphasis was simplified, horizontal and virtual lines, with primary colors. All these themes are apparent in Marshall’s striking, De Style painting. While the Nike tennis shoes and unorthodox hair weaves on two of the male subjects hint at a modern day barbershop scene, the piece still lends itself with a 60s nuance.

Perhaps it’s the thin black tie on the man placed almost center, with a confident vertical stance like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. Or it may have been the brown turn-knob radio and bowling trophy positioned on the counter. Either way, Marshall seamlessly intertwines two different eras. The painting style is flat, with a black worn rubber tile floor, white cabinet drawers with red framing, a yellow trash can, a pink sink, and a white clock. I immediately saw something religious in De Style. I couldn’t pinpoint it until I noticed the barber’s head, which is framed by rays of light. Possibly indicative that he is the deity of the Barbershop’s culture in which clienteles rely on their image of beautification. Along with the rays of light framing the barber’s head, were unevenly dispersed pink stars. Yet, the stars were not perfect in shape; they had lengthened points, with a North Star effect and “K7” in the center. It seems from this, Marshall was embedding some religious undertones and hidden symbolisms in this iconic Barbershop scene.

To the left is a similar symbolic variation of a work titled, The Lost Boys, 1993. The comparable-sized painting presents two black boys playing together. One is holding a pink water-gun, the other sitting on one of those 2-dollar car rides for kiddies that sit outside in-front of supermarkets. The painting’s foreground features a tree. Its trunk is wrapped with yellow police tape. This could possibly insinuate the crime-infested neighborhood the boys live in. The tree trunk has the word “LIFE” vertically painted in between the yellow tape. The leaves of the tree have an indigo blue tint, and the branches bloom a strange-looking yellow fruit. The police tape could be representative of a serpent, and this snake is an extension of the yellow fruit, indicating the tree of temptation in Adam and Eve, as well as signifying the Tree of Life. There are also kick-balls scattered throughout the grass. The painting exposes the inclusive conflict of innocent black boys in their youth, before falling victim to the cruelty, crime, and the depravity of life.

To the right of these two large pieces are collages and paintings on papers and mixed media from the artist’s early years in Los Angeles. The medium on which Marshall paints – whether it is unstretched canvas, leather, chalkboard, wood, tapestries, or fiberglass – appears just as unrestricted as the themes in his works. Some of these smaller mixed-media works I found more significant than his larger renowned paintings. Eschu from the African Power Series, 1989, on wood cut and monoprint, hangs at a humble 13 by 11.5 inches. The black abstract face with distorted and sharp outlines and shapes, paired with hallow white eyes and massive white teeth, gives the piece almost a Picasso- meets-Jose-Posada- feel. The Ecstasy of Communion, 1990, is extraordinary. It measures a little more than 16 by 11 inches and is acrylic and mixed media on leather. The image seems to be painted on one side of a worn leather briefcase. The black man appears to be dead, yet because of how Marshall paints his appearance, it looks as if he could be alive, i.e. born again in death. His eyes are faintly opened and his tongue lifeless, peeking out of his month. His chest is sliced open to reveal his ribcage and arrows are stuck in him. Next to the arrows are red circles like those of a shooting target. There is a similar circling formation behind and around the man’s head, however it is gold and offers a holy effect. The tilt of the man’s head, slightly upward, indicates the iconic tilt of Jesus’s head when he is nailed to the cross. Thus, there is a thick cross painted behind the man. Marshall also paints a visible heart in the man’s chest, deep red with thorns circling it. This piece not

only denotes the heavy hold religion and its politics can swallow one in. It also offers how religion can dissect you, lift up, then bring down, and whether we attend confession or not, our hearts stop beating and death continues on.

  Ecstasy of Communion, 1990. Image from the Met-Breuer Website

Ecstasy of Communion, 1990. Image from the Met-Breuer Website

Following that section of the exhibit are paintings from the late 1980s and early 1990s. These works were completed in Chicago where Marshall began to flourish in his powerful technique of acrylic painting on large collaged unstretched canvases. Marshall’s pieces, Could This Be Love, 1993, The Slow Dance 1992, and When Frustration Threatens Desire, 1990 illustrate this most well – and it is a motif I find forcefully engaging in Marshall’s overall style. These works include objects of hidden perceived meanings, and they all touch upon identity, desire, superstation, intimacy, lust and greed. Throughout these pieces are dispersed circles that could be either moons or clocks, with various numbers (not placed in numerical clock formation), indicating a concoction of astronomy and the relativity of time. Detailed music notes, lyrics, melted candles, faded wallpaper, and even a shooting star inside a bedroom are highlighted in these works. Still, with all these interpretations and symbolisms, Marshall paints his black figures, front and center with unassuming gestures.

Just when I thought I could not be any more hypnotized by the extremities of Marshall’s capabilities, I made my way the 4th floor. Stimulated and overwhelmed, I was humbled as I stepped off the elevator and greeted by nine massive canvases, evenly placed on three large walls. All portraying one theme - nature - more specifically, parks, gardens and fields. The black silhouettes in these nine pieces are engaged in whimsical and light activities such as playing outside, having a picnic, listening to music, throwing clothes over a hanging-line, and gardening. While the black subjects are at the forefront of each painting, Marshall incorporates various paintings techniques. He paints with a little Edward Hopper flair in the buildings, some little Pollock hints with abstract splatter and dripping, and a slight Matisse quality with the blotting and blending of vibrant colors. Yet, Marshall’s own distinctive technique is a melody that still plays louder in all nine works. 

   G    a    r    de    n Project Series, 4    th     Floor of the Met-Breuer. Photo by Courtney Wilkins

Garden Project Series, 4th Floor of the Met-Breuer. Photo by Courtney Wilkins

Turning and leaving the Garden Project Series, you walk into a smaller gallery with Marshall’s newer works depicting artists within their creative element, such as painting in their studios. Then forward and left, is another humble space filled with Marshall’s cluster of fictional black and female painters. Following this section, is a gallery filled with black subjects that are presented as heroic in historical and orthodox settings. This particular small space is more than noteworthy, because it is here where Marshall uses contemporary African American men and women placed in the conventions of traditional European portraits. For example, in Marshall’s Scouts Series, 1995, there are four paintings evenly dispersed that feature a black child from the shoulders upward wearing Boy and Girl Scout uniforms. They are shown with a burst of white paint behind their heads, which has a halo effect and is in great contrast to their skin. They appear as young saints, resilient yet humble. The Scouts Series contain no direct reference to their own possibility, but Marshall uses this series as a formal stratagem that is classically reserved for white and European faces. It his intention to draw focus on the absence of black subjects in historical and cultural narratives, and unlike other artists, he does so boldly with absolute blackness. Next, you move into a small space where Marshall presents his subjects intertwined with landscapes and seascapes. Finally, in the last gallery of the 4th floor, are paintings referred to as souvenirs or mementos where Marshall includes nuances from the Civil Rights era. 

Amidst all of these remarkably diverse works, there is one colossal painting I always return to, School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012. Displaying at 107 by 157 inches, Marshall includes eight women, two babies just barely walking, and three men. Some women are sitting getting their hair done, some already looking prim with it finished, some leaving, and some entering. It is beaming with gold glitter and vibrant contrasting tones. It’s painted as if the viewer got a glimpse of the women’s Beauty Salon Empire. You feel as if you were lucky enough to get a ticket to their show. What makes it most thought-provoking is the unawareness the subjects have to any onlookers. Their demeanor is deliberate, lively, vivacious, ethnic, uninhibited, and fresh. While Marshall sticks to his flat painting form, the women and children are so physically committed to their stance, you feel as if you just stepped into the salon. And while it may be easy to overlook, the most interesting detail Marshall includes, is actually an aberration from his other pieces. He breaks the fourth wall. In the back center of the painting is a small mirror with a tiny flash and you can just barely see it’s a man taking a photo, showing us the view through his camera lens. Even with all these components in the piece, Marshall stirs things up by painting a glittery face of a Sleeping Beauty forward center of the painting. She appears ostentatious. Likely to illustrate the ideology that is brainwashed in girls from childhood - to look like a beautiful white Disney princess - and oh boy does she look out of place. No doubt that was Marshall’s intention.

    School of Beauty, School of Culture     ,  2012. Photo by Courtney Wilkins

School of Beauty, School of Culture2012. Photo by Courtney Wilkins

I could attend the Kerry James Marshall: Mastry Exhibition at least three more times and I still not digest every notion, theme, and story he graciously shares with us. Marshall’s assertion of contemporary black life and culture, along with the ability to weave various painting techniques, an array of mediums, and reflective interpretations, leaves you feeling cultivated, awakened, and overwhelmed with genuine pleasure.