Kerry James Marshall: The Master is Present

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School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012. Kerry James MarshallKerry James Marshall, at the Met Breuer exhibition until January 29, boldly claims center stage in American art with his show entitled “Mastry.” A Chicago-based painter, Marshall seizes the spotlight at the center of conversations about American art at the center of the country’s art scene in New York. His mastery unfurls over a grand expanse of work, complemented by his own selections from the Metropolitan Museum’s collections, a curated sidebar that testifies to his confident deployment of art history in his own work. History, genre, cityscape, portrait – Marshall draws from the visual riches of the past, transforming Western art traditions into his own language. His cityscapes suggest how his paintings reclaim space. 

A series from the mid-1990s sets stylized black figures in public housing projects, where the atmosphere is a mix of bucolic leisure and dark premonitions. Gentlemen in ironed white shirts and ties garden, a young couple embraces as they stroll a path in “Better Homes, Better Gardens.” Marshall lets a wash of irony tint these scenes, from the ubiquitous naming convention “gardens” to the juxtaposition of towering public housing blocks and a pink flamingo planter full of weeping flowers. A pie chart for AFDC occupies a corner of Altgeld Gardens; the “Welcome’ sign for another project in “Many Mansions” is faded and scraped down, as though “welcome” itself were worn. A lakeside picnic features the family playing golf, croquet, and water-skiing, while a banner above suggests a classified ad where the job-seeker offers to “work with heart and skill.” A boy on the checked picnic cloth listens to Top 10 hits, part of a family entrapped in a cultural imaginary that has so often painted them out of the picture. The edges of experience fray, as ornamental patterns bleed into figurative backgrounds. These scenes of everyday force the viewer to confront their own expectations: croquet? water-skiing, really? And why not?

These are portraits of moments in American culture, that offer us African Americans as the protagonists of a drama. Both a restorative measure and a mandate for refusing stereotypes, the large-scale  paintings present black America as central to national identity. In contrast to long media conventions of depicting African-Americans as marginalized or so often, pathological, the Marshall oeuvre embraces its figures rendered in a provocative sheen of obsidian. Everyday life drips with ordinariness, even as intimations of political turmoil and social injustice lurk at the edges.

Past Times. 1997.. Kerry James Marshall The action in “School of Beauty, School of Culture” suggests a complex understanding of cultural creation. As a fashionable girl boogies in the foreground, a thin wafer embossed with a Disney princess spins through the air, like an alien spaceship landing in the living room. Customers and hair stylists engage in lively debate, animated and comfortable in a space of beauty and culture. This comfort is bracketed but not overwhelmed by signs of trouble, marking how Marshall pushes us to understand everyday experience as flowing in deep channels of history.

Paintings: School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012, and Past Times, 1997 by Kerry James Marshall

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