Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Jill Krementz covers Kerry James Marshall

Images don't only express out desires, they teach us how to desire in the the first place.
The things you see actually matter. The more images you see, the more they matter."
— Kerry James Marshall
Kerry James Marshall: Mastry
The Met Breuer
Madison Avenue at 75th Street
October 25, 2016-January 29, 2017

"Self-Portrait of the artist as a Super Model" 1994
Kerry James Marshall with his wife Cheryl Lynn Bruce at his opening night party at the Met Breuer: October 25, 2016
The most anticipated art show of the year just opened at the Met Breuer. It’s a retrospective of American artist Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955, Birmingham. Alabama) whose work illustrates the American experience as unimaginable without black history and culture. The American artist lives on a residential block in Bronzeville on the South Side of Chicago with his wife, the actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce.

Spanning Mr. Marshall’s 35-year-career, the paintings are steeped in Marshall’s childhood growing up in South Central Los Angeles — the local barbershop, the beauty parlor, and the Nickerson Gardens Projects in Watts.  Also informing his work is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Marshall’s many excursions to art museums (where he was among the few black visitors).

The exhibition of 80 works has been co-curated by Ian Alteveer, from the Met; Helen Molesworth at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles where the show will travel after it leaves the Met Breuer; and Dieter Roelstraete at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

I urge you to treat yourself to the comprehensive and fully illustrated catalogue ($65) with essays by the curators, as well as eight beautifully written essays by the artist.
Kerry James Marshall with Ian Alteveer, curator of Met Breuer exhibition.
Met research associate Meredith Brown, who worked with Ian on the exhibition for two years. Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, with the exuberant artist.
Dieter Roelstraete, the senior curator of the Chicago exhibition, with co-curator Abigail Winograd.
They met while they were working on the installation and married a year ago.

Madeleine Grynsztejn, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

She is wearing Dries Van Noten.
School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012
Acrylic and glitter on canvas

This interior scene shares its title with the salon Your School of Beauty Culture, not far from Marshall's studio on Chicago's South Side.

You have to look carefully to notice the ghostly, anamorphic head of Disney's Sleeping Beauty hovering at bottom center, recalling the distorted skull that haunts Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533). At center, amid the vibrantly dressed salon workers and clientele, the artist himself is reflected in the full-length mirror but obscured by the flash of his camera—a discrete reference to Diego Velázquez's presence in his 1656 portrait of the Spanish royal court, Las Meninas.
Could This Be Love, 1992

Marshall's Portrait of the Artist & a Vacuum, 1981, places a cleaning implement front and center: a vacuum has been left behind for the moment, its cord trailing on the floor.

On the wall nearby, Marshall's shadowed future looks on. The pairing of these elements suggests a major elision in most artworks that have celebrated banal household objects, the relative invisibility of the people typically responsible for the cleaning, whether hired help (especially people of color) or women held to the task of maintaining the home. Housework is never done, and it largely happens out of sight.

In the same room, on the wall behind the vacuum — an invisible man a portrait of the artist waits for the invisible work to resume.
Silence is Golden, 1986. This is one of a series of paintings inspired by the artist's reading of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man (1952), which compelled Marshall to produce a series of works that examine the cultural and psychological conditions of the black figure in American society and art history.
Bang. As you can see this is a very large, floor to ceiling painting.

Alongside monumental paintings of urban housing projects, Marshall created several large scenes of suburban life. These pictures, like their urban counterparts, imagine black life as a romantic idyll. Appropriating compositional elements of pastoral paintings from the Italian Renaissance, each work possesses a clearly delineated foreground, middle ground, and background. Here, under the setting sun, three children celebrate Independence Day in a grassy backyard. They proudly pledge allegiance to the flag while cotton-candy pink clouds in the foreground declare "Happy July 4th" with the added exclamation "bang." The sound of both fireworks and gunfire, Bang floats as a subtle reminder of the specter of violence that looms over American history.
West Coast Art critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philp (KCRW in California) and Mr. Marshall. Writers Dodie Kazanjian and Tad Tomkins.
Installation view.
Campfire Girls, 1995

Two girls wrapped in blankets sit next to a small tent, warm themselves by a roaring fire, and enjoy a backyard campout. A declarative statement of presence hangs above their heads, as if the girls are confidently staking a claim for their place in the world. Like Marshall's other paintings of suburban life, Campfire Girls presents children engaged in a leisure activity in a bucolic setting, a scene that runs counter to mainstream depictions of black childhood. However, the darker history of African American life is never far away; the banner encircling the central tree lists different kinds of legal covenants, including property leases and contracts, that were historically used to disenfranchise the black community.
Souvenir 1, 1997

Souvenir I borrows the language of Italian Renaissance painting to memorialize lives lost during the civil-rights struggle and pay tribute to those who preserve that history. Behind the central figure hangs a banner venerating the trinity of assassinated leaders: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. Above her, like cherubim, float silkscreened portraits of other 1960s martyrs: activist Medgar Evers; Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair, the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham; Freedom Riders Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964; black nationalist leader Malcolm X; and Black Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton.
Memento #5, 2003
Sob, Sob, 2003

Seated on the floor, a young woman gazes off into the distance. Behind her is a bookcase stocked with titles related to Africans' and African Americans' journeys for self- determination. In front of her rests a copy of a book entitled Africa Since 1413, a reference to the year of the first European expeditions to the continent. Although this book does not exist, its implied contents would chronicle, among other things, the tragedies of colonial rule and the slave trade. The young woman's cries may be both a lament for this difficult history and a curse, for "SOB" may represent both a literal sob and an acronym for "son of a bitch."
Gulf Stream, 2003

The artist depicts four people enjoying a leisurely sail on calm waters. Bordered by a gold glitter nautical rope, the scene resembles a postcard or clichéd vacation photograph. Marshall borrowed the title but contrasted the mood from Homer's dramatic painting The Gulf Stream (1899) in The Met's collection, which depicts a black man in a small, rudderless boat surrounded by sharks, struggling in the rough seas.

Still life with Wedding Portrait,

His wedding portrait of escaped slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman and her first husband portrays a tender moment in the private life of the famous woman, even as the black-gloved hand holding the portrait implies more recent resistance.

Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master,

In 1831 Nat Turner, an enslaved African American, led a rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Virginia that resulted in the deaths of some sixty white people. As they moved from plantation to plantation, the rebels gathered farm implements, horses, and guns, liberating slaves as they went.

Marshall here presents Turner mid-action, defiantly confronting the viewer, a bloodied axe in his hand; the severed head of his white master rests on the pillow behind him. The painting recalls Renaissance and Baroque depictions of David with the head of Goliath or Judith with the head of Holofernes, biblical scenes that dramatize decapitation as an act of heroism.
Vignette, 2003

The large Vignette suggests an alternative, happier outcome to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, one in which butterflies, cardinals, and bluebirds lead the way and clover softens the path. Marshall's depictions of significant, if sometimes relatively unknown, rebels carry with them a contemporary urgency. As the artist has explained, "rebellion wasn't something that started with the civil rights struggle; it started in the eighteenth century, and the goals of that struggle are yet to be realized."
Detail of Vignette.

Mr. Marshall with Dr. Anita Blanchard. Dr. Blanchard is an ardent fan who has travelled the world attending exhibitions by KJM. She owns one of his works.
Dr. Blanchard in front of her very own work by Marshall — Lovers in Grass.
The press preview included an interlude on the ground floor of the Met Breuer where guests were welcomed by Ian Alteveer, Kerry James Marshall, Mr. Campbell, and Elyse Topalian, VP of Communications. Ms. Topalian will be leaving the Met at the end of the year after working there for 30 years. We will all miss her.

When it was time for Kerry James Marshall to step up to the podium and say a few words he raised both arms into the air to show how thrilled he was to have his work on display at the Met. A lifelong dream.
Artist at the podium acknowledging the many people who helped make his dream come true.
Even Tom Campbell was taking photographs.
Tom Campbell, Ian Alteveer, and Sheena Wagstaff, all bursting with pride, and with good reason.
Art critics Deborah Solomon and Phyllis Tuchman greeting the artist after the press conference.

Deborah Solomon about to unlock her bike and zippity-do across Central Park. In her basket is the splendid exhibition catalogue ($65) which I recommend. Deborah is working on an upcoming bio of Jasper Johns.

Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved. Contact Jill Krementz here.