Monday, October 24, 2016

The Met Breuer presents "Kerry James Marshall: Mastry"

Detail, Untitled (Studio), 2014
Kerry James Marshall
(photo: Eva Yaa Asantewaa)
Kerry James Marshall (American, b. 1955). Untitled (Studio), 2014. Acrylic on PVC panels. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Foundation Gift, Acquisitions Fund and The Metropolitan Museum of Art Multicultural Audience Development Initiative Gift, 2015 (2015.366) © Kerry James Marshall
Kerry James Marshall at press preview
for Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at The Met Breuer
(photo: Eva Yaa Asantewaa)

Tomorrow, The Met Breuer opens its first monographic exhibition for a living artist--Alabama-born Kerry James Marshall. Open through January 27, 2017, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry explores over 35 years of the artist's dedication to telling complex stories of Black experience.

Detail, Bang, 1994
Kerry James Marshall
(photo: Eva Yaa Asantewaa)

At a press preview for the show--introduced by Met director and CEO Thomas P. Campbell and exhibition co-curator Ian Alteveer--Marshall spoke of imagery's power to inspire a more expansive sense of possibilities than we generally allow ourselves to imagine. His work positions Black people, for better or for worse, squarely in the fabric of America, just as he joyfully positions himself and his work within the stream of great Western and world art history.

Wall text at the exhibition describes Marshall's "defiant and celebratory assertion of blackness in a medium in which African-Americans have often been invisible." At the preview, he explained that curious word "mastry" as an act of undermining the authority of master over servant. In every work of Marshall's art, you can hear that "e" drop like a mic.

Detail, Memento #5 (2003)
Kerry James Marshall
(photo: Eva Yaa Asantewaa)

Marshall can do what he wants with the word "master" because, in its most positive meaning, it absolutely belongs to him. Large (as many of the paintings are) or small, vibrantly bright or pitch dark, narrative-based or abstract, austere or decorative, each one of his works has a formal and expressive confidence you will come to recognize as pure Marshall.

Overall, he renders skin tones slate black and darker in ways that appear stereotypical only to those too timid to imagine a Blackness that hearty and that sure of itself. I came to call it "royal black"--like royal blue or royal purple. A 2014 work called Untitled (Club People) stands as one of its best examples. It depicts a young couple out on a date, being completely themselves, free of whatever might constrict them at other hours. They are radiantly royal black.

The show also includes 40 works from the Met collection by artists who have interested and influenced Marshall. The list is long, diverse, uniting everyone from Albrecht Dürer to Willem de Kooning, from Andrew Wyeth to an anonymous mask maker of the Dan. But exploring Marshall's work itself with even a layperson's basic exposure to the visual arts can offer enjoyable discoveries.

In De Style (1993), for instance, a neighborhood barber resembles a Renaissance saint with modest halo, open fingers of his left hand raised in a gesture of benediction above his customer's head, the halo's orange lines and the razor's orange surface mirroring each other's life-giving energy. De Style exemplifies Marshall's interplay of illumined iconography and the everyday--mundane items like a trash bucket lined in black plastic; ample coils of hair littered around the barber's chair; snaking electric cords jammed into one overworked plug adapter. In The Lost Boys (1993), Marshall presents his own version of a kabbalistic Tree of Life, dark blue of leaf but bearing strangely glowing (radioactive?) fruit. Each of its seven sephirot reveal a bullet at its core. Other paintings symbolically reference Afro-Atlantic spiritual/magical traditions or evoke histories of oppression or resistance.

He makes space, too, for Black people to participate in leisure, suburban activities, to enjoy nature, to love one another, to float within visions of rose-colored American optimism--just like everybody else. At the press conference, Marshall quoted art scholar W. J. T. Mitchell--author of What Do Pictures Want?--"Images don't only express desires. They teach us how to desire in the first place."

Marshall's desire is to be radically present, to represent presence and to activate presence in others of his race. In person, he is a warm, charming speaker--so clearly reflective of the outgoing, self-assured nature of his art--and an ardent fan pleased to be honored by a museum he has long treasured. His show rewards extended study and will inspire return visits. I'm already checking my calendar for my next chance to go.

Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO
of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and
exhibition co-curator Ian Alteveer (below)
speak to the assembled press at The Met Breuer.


Kerry James Marshall: Mastry runs from October 25-January 27, 2017.  For exhibition and events information, click here. For museum hours and ticket information, click here.

The Met Breuer
3rd and 4th floors
945 Madison Avenue (at 75th Street), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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