The prolific evidence of an artist who has engaged the medium of painting and shaped it into a succinct and recognizable vision is on view in the retrospective exhibition, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry. Occupying nearly two floors of exhibition space at the The Met Breuer, a treasure trove of work from the artist’s thirty-five year career immortalizes the black experience in America through an evocative series of narrative paintings. The black figure, traditionally absent in the art historical canon of text books and rarefied culture, is central to his oeuvre and is situated within well known archetypes of western painting including: the historical tableau, landscape, genre painting, and portraiture.
The work also references mural and comic book aesthetics, two mediums that have also been traditionally absent from the field of so-called high art. Photography, an art form that was not officially considered “art” until the late 20th century, is also on view in a small room that features both conceptual and candid images by Marshall. Aside from sophisticated skills as a painter and engaging storyteller, Marshall’s intentional choice of content and breadth of aesthetic styles works to expand the established art historical mainstream and bring fresh an imaginative life to contemporary visual culture.
Although, the figure is primary throughout the exhibition, a pair of abstract paintings, Untitled Blot (2014) and Untitled Blot (2015), offers a visual pause in the curation of the space. Amidst the narrative plot lines of subsets of paintings throughout the exhibition, they riff on the colors of the Pan-African flag (red, black and green), comment on the politics of modernism for black artists, and play with metaphors in relation to the Rorschach test. Despite the fact that the conceptual underpinnings of the paintings are not necessarily obvious, the work is boldly delightful in its use of an amusing color palette that works hot pink, yellow and a few other shades into their red, black and green reference, resulting in a striking symmetrical pattern.
A recurring thread throughout Marshall’s paintings is the multi-tonality of the color black evident in the intricate shading and use of light and shadow to indicate highlights in facial features and hair texture. However, skin color remains the same shade of black throughout all of his paintings, perhaps a metaphor to signal his intention to speak of black culture as a whole. Subject matter ranges from depictions of black artists in their studios, African Americans at leisure - strolling, biking, golfing, and camping – to a series on the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and scenes from beauty salons, romance, and more. In his series on leisure, the Garden Project, several large scale paintings feature black figures set among lawns, trees and birds- idealized landscapes - in front of both low income housing, such as Los Angeles’ Nickerson Gardens, and suburban homes.
Marshall’s ability to capture intimate, community-based and historical narratives in his works is very much grounded in the rhythms of daily life. However, his unique eye and insider’s point of view elevates and celebrates the stages, dramas, and scenes where black life plays out day in and day out, presenting viewers with a magnificently rich and bountiful American tableau.