Kerry James Marshall's Figurative Mastery
Currently on view at the MOCA for just another week is Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective Mastry. Over 80 figurative large scale compositions of African-Americans captured in the mundanity of daily life hang on the gallery walls. Because Marshall began his 35 year career in a time when the United States was racially segregated and reeling from political unrest—a time when negative images and thoughts about black people were widespread and accepted, he decided to focus his work on promoting the beauty of black people and the normality of their lives. Addressing the absence of positive black images, not to mention the lack of African-American representation on both sides of the brush (in a painting art history that spans 600 years), Marshall filled a void that provocatively challenged the status quo. By placing his inky black subjects in scenes and situations not commonly associated with the opportunities afforded to the black race, the viewer is confronted with the collective “off-ness” of these paintings—calling into question stereotypical interpretations of this particular group of people. Black people don’t play croquet or golf. Black people don’t jet ski or sunbathe—or swim in the ocean for that matter. What’s really going on here? It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time in Marshall’s career when this deliberate defiance was extremely controversial and seen as political commentary, and according to him, it was. “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it. That determined a lot of where my work was going to go,” (MOCA).
While the distinctions between the paintings might lie in whether it’s a historic event, landscape or interior composition, the unifying attributes are striking bold colors and exquisite detail. Some of the paintings reminded me of photographs due to the amount of specificity and precision present in the entirety of the piece. As I mentioned before, the inky blackness of the paintings’ subjects are intentionally arresting. Not brown or chocolate, but black as a ball point pin, with expressions ranging from sullen and melancholy to open faced laughter and joy—white teeth and all. I particularly love when Marshall uses metallic glitter in his paintings. The silver beaded curtains that symbolically resemble the bars of a jail cell in “What A Time” or the gold glitter wings of the middle-aged woman as a “guardian angel” in “Souvenir 1.” That particular piece was created as a tribute to the “1960s trinity of assassinated martyrs: President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” (MOCA). The very fact that his black-subject-oriented paintings are large in scale is yet another example of Marshall breaking with convention and the traditional way African-American art is experienced. It simply was unheard of to feature black images in such an imposing size. Wall to ceiling blackness on display for the art world to embrace or reject without apology.
There is a healthy mixture of atypical and conventional hallmarks of black life present in the retrospective. For every Boy Scout badge earning, boat driving subject, there is also a quintessential slice of black culture painting. Two of my favorite pieces highlight the black barber shop and black beauty parlor. Marshall takes on the topic of black hair—a highly sensitive and controversial bone of contention in the black community—a source of painful subjugation in the history of America—and re-contextualizes the narrative. “The painting stages the hairdresser and his dapper clientele like the aristocratic subjects of an old master group portrait. Brimming with vitality, the work features fantastic hairstyles, richly detailed accoutrements, and gleaming pink starbursts. While ‘De Style’ underscores the absence of black figures in the “grand tradition” of Western painting, it represents a host of stylish black figures, recognizing the barbershop as a site for creativity and culture,” (MOCA). Seeing these paintings up close is a thrilling experience. I found myself sitting in front of both for a very long time—scanning it over and over waiting for the next minute detail to reveal itself and the magnitude of Marshall’s ability.
Honestly, there are at least 20 pieces in Mastry that I’d consider favorites and would love to own. One in particular had me contemplating what it would take to pull a Pierce Brosnan in the Thomas Crown Affair. “Black Painting,” is exactly that, a painting in all blacks. Whether you step far back or get up close, the painting requires your eyes to study and adjust before it reveals all the different shades of black that come together to create the image . It blew me away, along with so many others. Go see it before it closes! You’ll be glad you did.
Mastry is on view only until July 3rd
Mon 11am - 6pm
Wed 11am - 6pm
Thur 11am - 8pm
Fri 11am - 6pm
Sat 11am - 5pm
Sun 11am - 5pm
250 SOUTH GRAND AVE
LOS ANGELES, CA 90012
General Admission (valid all day at both DTLA locations): $15
Students with I.D.: $8
Seniors (65+): $10
Children under 12: Free
Jurors with I.D.: Free
Admission is free every Thursday from 5pm to 8pm, sponsored by