Kerry James Marshall: Mastry
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
By Nancy Kay Turner
Through July 3rd
“I am invisible, understand simply because people refuse to see me.”
Ralph Ellison (Prologue 1) The Invisible Man
Viewers should be warned that seeing Kerry James Marshall’s grandly ambitious, densely narrative and very operatic paintings could induce Stendhal Syndrome (having panic attack-like symptoms of nausea, dizziness and faintness in the face of extraordinary visual stimuli). His work, whether large–scale or small is powerfully moving and almost overwhelming. Marshall, who is eloquent, has said that as a young artist he rarely found images in art textbooks of people who looked like him. Indeed, only the barely visible black servant in Edouard Manet’s 1865 painting entitled “Olympia” was in the art history books of the 1960’s, alongside the Diego Velasquez portrait of his servant Juan De Pareja from 1650. Marshall has dedicated his career and his epic body of work to painting the specific life and community of black people—and literally painting them purposely with only black pigment.
Upon entering the exhibit, one of the first images is a tiny (a mere 8” x 6”) work entitled “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self”(1980 egg tempera on paper). Marshall’s black, simplified and flattened figure with hat is shown in contour, silhouetted against a dark charcoal background. Only the whites of the eyes, the white of the smile (every single tooth outlined in black except for the one tooth conspicuously missing right in front), along with the white triangle of his shirt are evident. This intentionally stereotypical portrayal of blackness highlights the one-dimensional representations of black people in films and television. This same self-portrait appears in “ Portrait of the Artist & a Vacuum”, (1981 63” x 52” acrylic on paper), now prominently framed and hanging on the brick -red, slightly patterned wall. It is a seemingly simple (in composition and color relationships) but pointed picture suggesting the unappreciated domestic work so many African-Americans do.
In the 1990’s, Marshall turned his attention to exploring spiritualism, mysticism, Christian rituals, and symbols of Afro-Cuban Santeria. He created huge, theatrical mixed-media paintings on unstretched canvas attached to the wall with grommets—almost like big circus advertisements mixing text and image, abstraction with figuration, collage and paint. In “When Frustration Threatens Desire”(1990, 80’ x 72” acrylic and collage on canvas), a man, perhaps a healer, holds his hands over the levitating prone body of a woman (beautifully transparent and delineated with parallel sectional lines). The detritus of many different religious and magical systems are present. In the foreground are scattered playing cards, a black cat, a mysterious black root sealed in a glass jar, leaves for herbal potions, a possibly dead snake and a disembodied hand. In the background there are lightly penciled numbers in gridded rectangles, along with circles that refer to time, or reference African flags, and other enigmatic codes which add to the lure of this inscrutable image.
The epic painting entitled “De Style” (1993 104’ x 122 acrylic on unstretched canvas) marks a move away from the unearthly pursuit of mysticism into the pleasures of everyday life. Marshall’s subjects frequent beauty shops and barbershops with regularity as these shops are essential meeting places to chat, gossip and socialize. With this masterful image, Marshall celebrates the fantastically inventive hairstyles of his community, which are wonderfully sculptural and seem to have a life of their own. Endearingly painted, the plant on the left amusingly echoes the shape of the Marge Simpson-like beehive of the customer seated nearby. Marshall lovingly captures the mood and creative extravagance of these hair wizards and paints the interior of these worn and cluttered spaces (love that dark green linoleum floor) with a keen and observant eye. Always a student of art history, these are his version of Dutch interiors. Indeed, Marshall has said “ …I want people to understand my work as a continuation of painting as it was practiced from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century…”
When Marshall moved to Los Angeles as a nine-year old, he and his family moved into the then new Nickerson Gardens, which had hot running water, gardens, a gym, a library and was like heaven to him. Scenes of running and playing children figure prominently in this series of paintings, attesting to the joy he felt when he first lived in Nickerson Gardens. But these housing projects eventually fell into disrepair and became dangerous ghettos: rather than advancing the American Dream these projects quickly became quite the opposite. In the ironically titled “Better Homes, Better Gardens” (1994, 100” x 142”, acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas), a young couple walks (looking watchful) in the garden. Signs of broken fencing, broken pipes (witness the translucent wash of blue water shooting upward then dripping down the picture plane), wilting plants and sheets instead of curtains on some windows signal the declining fortunes of this once bucolic housing project. Marshall mixes traditional deep space with allegorical elements (bluebirds flying, the sun shining like a halo) and with the 20th century urge to abstract and flatten space. All of the work in this series have ceremonial banners fluttering overhead, spelling out what appear to be affirmative, hopeful messages such as There’s (goes off the canvas here) more of everyth….”, leaving the viewer to complete the phrase. These euphemistic phrases painfully expose the distance between fantasy and reality here.
Marshall is always working his way through the history of art –the religious paintings, allegorical, Dutch interiors, landscapes, portraits, self-portraits– and through movements like Pop art. His 2008- 2009 artist series answers the question what does an artist look like. These medium-sized paintings, now painted on the hard, smooth surface of PVC, all position a seated black artist looking straight ahead and holding a huge old style palette, replete with the thumb hole. In the “Untitled” (2009, 61 1/8” x 72 1/8”, acrylic on PVC panel), a confident female artist is seated in front of an unfinished paint-by-number painting (a nod to Warhol). At this point in his work, Marshall’s subjects are painted volumetrically — note the light shining on the artist’s fantastically spiraled hair sitting atop her head almost like a hat. Her eyes are now ringed with pink and the whites are grayed realistically. The palette itself is a fabulous work of abstraction. Marshall’s work is dense with meaning, allusions and each painting is always more than the sum of its parts. Kerry James Marshall has achieved the impossible. By painting the specific African-American community’s dress, habits, religions, superstitions, and politics, he has created dazzling and poignant paintings that speak a universal language.