There are exceptions, but for the most part art museums are very white places. White walls are covered in the works of white artists. White nudes are illuminated by white lights. Marble sculptures reveal ivory-white skin. White people look at art made of, for and about the white experience.
Kerry James Marshall is a black artist who paints black people. The men and women in Marshall’s paintings are not people of a range of colors. They are not painted in differing shades of brown. They are painted in the darkest, inkiest black, consistently, exclusively, insistently and masterfully.
“Mastry,” a much-lauded retrospect of Marshall’s work, has just opened at MOCA’s Grand Avenue location in downtown L.A. This is the third and final stop for the painting show, which began its North American tour at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and landed next at the Met Breuer in Manhattan. Critics in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles have consistently called it a must-see show, but I say it's actually a must-see-at-least-twice show.
Just one of Marshall’s paintings holds enough layers, textures and allusions to occupy a viewer’s mind for the better part of an hour. Multiply that by 78 –– the number of works on display in the MOCA retrospective –– and you can see how a return visit is practically required. (If multiple $15 admission fees are outside your budget, remember that MOCA is always free on Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m.)
Marshall is not a greedy artist, demanding your time selfishly. He is, in fact, an incredibly generous one. Every minute spent with his paintings is rewarded. Take, for instance, Black Painting, a work Marshall painted from 2003 to 2006. At first glance across the gallery it appears to be exactly what its title implies: a simple, large, monochromatic black square of a painting, emphatically framed in black.
But if you take the time to stand in front of Black Painting and let your eyes adjust as if to a dark room, figures and objects emerge. There is a couple in the bed. Is that an Angela Davis book on her nightstand? Look at how the flag on the wall is so beautifully draped and what its message implies about the people in the room or the world they live in or Marshall’s larger point. There’s a lot to unpack in this seductive work, every bit of it thoughtful, intentional and smart as hell.
MOCA curator Helen Molesworth says that with Black Painting, Marshall is flexing his painterly muscles, showing off his mastery of the medium by taking something that is already difficult to work with (black paint) and pushing it to the extreme.
Marshall’s technical mastery as a painter is alluded to in the show’s double (or triple?) entendre of a title. The depth of his knowledge about the history and art of painting on display in this show is stunning. Marshall is constantly alluding to the great (white) master painters of the past. He does so not to imitate but to acknowledge, to thrust himself and his blackness into that history and open a dialogue.
Marshall plays with all the tropes. Still lifes and landscapes and portraits and nudes. He inserts black people into scenes we’ve never seen them in before in art. Think of a typical “portrait of the artist” painting. The artist is always white. In Marshall’s portraits, the artists are black. They are women. They are defiant, afro-coiffed, fist-raised black men. They are holding palettes whose messy surfaces themselves immediately call to mind (white) German expressionist paintings. They are a direct and purposeful insertion of blackness into a white tradition.
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Of course, for truly great artists like Marshall, mastery of technique is never the end. It is the means, the necessary tool for expressing a larger truth about the human experience. For Marshall, who was born in Alabama during the civil rights movement’s most violent years, grew up in Los Angeles against the backdrop of the Watts Riots and ultimately made a life for himself in Chicago, race is always at the forefront and technical mastery is a given, but love is the message.
“There is no freedom without love,” Molesworth said on a recent walk-through at MOCA, pointing out the intense ways in which that feeling emanates from so many of Marshall’s paintings. In his depictions of couples and children and housing projects and barber shops and beauty parlors and a young Harriet Tubman, love is palpable.
Love, of course, is not black or white. It is human. For so long in the Western art tradition, human beauty and love and truth were depicted as exclusively white. Marshall depicts them as black. With “Mastry,” we see that he has spent his entire life knowing deeply what has only recently become a hashtag –– that black lives matter, and that it is way past time for our museums to regularly include depictions of beauty, love and truth that are black.
"Kerry James Marshall: Mastry," MOCA Grand Avenue, 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown; through July 3 (closed Tuesdays). moca.org/exhibition/kerry-james-marshall-mastry.