“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry”
Time Out says
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Every now and then, an exhibit reveals an artist of rare intelligence and clarity. Such is the case with “Mastry,” the Met Breuer’s survey of African-American artist Kerry James Marshall.
I’ve followed Marshall’s career for more than 20 years, having interviewed him during the Whitney Biennial (1997)—the one that finally included him after previously passing him over for insufficiently hewing to the identity politics of the time. I always thought I knew his work, and considered it some of the best being made today, but coming away from this show, I’m astounded by the depth of his drive and vision in challenging the Caucasian character of Western painting.
There’s more going on than that, but with respect to the matter of black lives and their representation in history (both in art and in American society), Marshall’s approach is far more profound and humanistic than, say, Kara Walker’s charnel-house visions of the antebellum South. That’s mainly due to the fact that, like any radical conservative, Marshall breaks the rules by adhering to them, giving his work the richness of tradition while subverting it.
He begins with a 1980 self-portrait in a wide-brimmed hat, his skin nearly matched to a dark brown background so that the whites of his eyes—and a broad grin missing a front tooth—pop out. Titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, the piece fairly traffics in racist caricature while evoking Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It resembles one of those spooky portraits with a swiveling gaze, following you around the haunted house of race.
Marshall picks apart the conventions of modernist and Old Master painting, repurposing the former for his own aims while adding a folk-art touch to the latter. A good instance of the first includes a black monochrome that, after a long stare, yields the faint outlines of an apartment with a Black Panther flag hanging in one corner, a scene meant to evoke the 1969 FBI killing of the Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton. Similarly, Marshall pays homage to Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis with Red (If They Come in the Morning), which superimposes its title—taken from an Angela Davis book—across a crimson color-field supplemented with Newmanesque zips of green and black to recall the black nationalist flag.
The show is dominated by large figurative ensembles that suggest Rembrandt reimagined by the Reverend Howard Finster. Some depict idealized scenes of African-American life (families picnicking, men in barbershops, spotless housing projects); others are memorials to fallen civil rights movement heroes. Still others insert black people into scenic categories (Winslow Homer–like seascapes, for example) normally reserved for white subjects or present imaginary black artists at work in their studios.
The show title, of course sounds like mastery, with all of its connotations of skill and subjugation. Those meanings are entwined in Marshall’s mission to insert the black body into the artistic canon—starting with his own.