How often do we have the privilege of having our eyes opened and our senses satisfied by an artist we hadn’t known before? Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, now open at MOCA through July 3, 2017, is a rare treat. With commanding color and composition, potent historical topics, and the chance to survey 35 years of an incredible career, it’s definitely the Must-See show of the spring — if not the year. A missing chapter in your art education will be remedied by a trip to MOCA’s Grand Avenue location.
The show is the first retrospective of Marshall’s work, a survey of 80 paintings co-curated by MOCA’s new Head Curator, Helen Molesworth. Here is an excellent NYTimes article by Wyatt Mason profiling the artist – the article is worth reading for contextualizing Marshall in the history of art, for exploring the political roots of his message, and for getting to know him as a man. This show, Mastry, was in Chicago and New York before coming to LA and was beloved in both cities.
Marshall was born in Birmingham Alabama in 1955, but grew up in Watts, CA and attended Otis College of Art and Design. He studied in Harlem before moving to Chicago where he continues to live and work. He received a MacArthur genius grant in 1997.
Marshall’s work explores the experience of being black in America. He employs large-scale canvases that depict images of African Americans going about their lives – at the beauty parlor, camping and barbecuing in the back yard, boating by a lake. The paintings are joyful, elegant, and powerful (especially when displayed all together in this striking show).
From MOCA’s catalogue: A deeply accomplished painter of ravishing works, Marshall has a threefold strategy. First, he decided as a young artist to paint only Black subjects, and he continues to do so in an unapologetic ebony black that occupies the paintings with a sense of authority and belonging.
Second, Marshall works to make a wide variety of images featuring Black subjects—exquisite portraits, lush landscapes, everyday domestic interiors, and depictions of historical events—infiltrating all of the major categories of Western painting in which they have historically been absent.
Third, Marshall concentrates on painterly mastery as a fundamental strategy: by mastering the art of representational and figurative painting during a period when it wasn’t in vogue, Marshall is able to produce a body of work that bestows beauty and dignity where it has long been denied.
Marshall explores notions of (white) beauty, the tragedy of gun violence, the promise and perils of life in the projects (including Nickerson Gardens in Watts), and the legacy of the murdered leaders of the 1960s (from Malcom X to Bobby Kennedy).
The work delivers a powerful political message about the place of African-Americans in the history of art, both in terms of the painters who are celebrated and shown in museums, and in terms of the representation of African Americans on canvas. The final room of the show invites viewers to sit down and pore through piles of images on the ground, as well as page through a thick book about African American artists, while seated beneath gorgeous images of African American painters.
Do your homework before visiting – be sure to see the videos on the MOCA site and read the NYTimes interview with Marshall – but then just enjoy the paintings and the crowds who are flocking to see this beautiful work.
And whats not to love about this? In the NYTimes video interview with the artist, Marhsall says: “If you really want to be free, you have to take charge of your capacity to shape the world.”
Image Credits: Installation view of Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, March 12–July 3, 2017 at MOCA Grand Avenue, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Brian Forrest