Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

"They are uncompromising in terms of the presentation of their blackness.  They are uncompromising."

--Kerry James Marshall

detail of a Kerry James Marshall painting at the Met Breuer, photograph by Elizabeth Snelling

Last week, Elizabeth Snelling and I took the bus into New York City to see the Kerry James Marshall: Mastry exhibit at the Met Breuer.  (Go see it!  It closes January 29th, 2017.)  The exhibit was so incredibly rich and full of paintings that I will make no attempt to summarize it.  I will just share a few of the paintings and some of my thoughts.  I also highly recommend listening to this short interview to hear the artist talk about his art and his process.

 Elizabeth looks at "Untitled (Mirror Girl)" by Kerry James Marshall (2014)

Elizabeth looks at "Untitled (Mirror Girl)" by Kerry James Marshall (2014)

In "Untitled (Mirror Girl)," the woman is holding her large breasts and smiling, or perhaps leering, at the viewer, standing nearly nude on a pile of discarded clothing.  As I gazed at the painting, her strong, aggressive, sexual posture made me uncomfortable.  I didn't like the painting.

Would I prefer a painting of a modest, lovely, submissive woman?  Yes,  but why?

Two nights later, I dreamed about this painting.  I dreamed I was that woman.  I stood just like her.  I held me breasts in just that way.  Then I woke up.

detail of "Beauty Examined" acrylic and collage by Kerry James Marshall, 1993

"Beauty Examined" is just that, a brutal examination of "beauty," as it is is manifested in a black woman's body.  Every part of her is labeled, numbered, and judged.  Her skin is sliced off, and she might as well be a corpse.  Looking for beauty this way reminds me of the old fairy tale of the goose who laid the golden eggs.  When the greedy man tried to open the goose up and see where the gold was, all he did was kill the goose.

detail of "Beauty Examined"

"...if I can't perceive within myself enough value in my image, or the image of black women, or construct the desire to represent that image as an ideal, then that's my problem, ultimately."  --Kerry James Marshall

Me, taking in "Could This Be Love," 1992, acrylic and collage on canvas, by Kerry James Marshall

So much was going on in each painting!  Sometimes the paintings were horrific in their subject matter (slavery, murder, etc.), but other times they were just ordinary, intimate scenes full of loving and intriguing details.  A lot of the paintings were narratives of black romance and domesticity.  The men and women wooed each other, or told jokes, or cut each other's hair.  I tried to create stories in my mind to explain the feelings and relationships portrayed (the woman taking off her red dress, for instance...is her mind elsewhere?) but I knew in my heart that there was a boundary between me and the paintings, which not even my imagination could cross.  I could look, but not enter, these private worlds.

I loved "Slow Dance," a tender painting of a couple dancing in their living room, enveloped by music.  For some reason, one of my favorite details was the outlet and the electrical cord plugged into a wall covered in rose wall-paper.  Roses and outlets, music and string beans... The mundane objects of daily life become permeated, and ennobled, by Romance. 

detail of "Slow Dance," a painting by Kerry James Marshall

(You can see it's just a large canvas nailed to the wall, unstretched and unframed, like many of his paintings.)

I also resonated with these two paintings of black women artists.  They are beautiful and proud, with amazing hairdos!  Standing before each of these paintings was like standing in the presence of a Queen or a Goddess.  

The Goddess of Painting...

"Untitled" 2011

Seriously, this show is so good.  I haven't even scratched the surface of it!  Please go and see it for yourself if at all possible.  As for me, it's after midnight, and I have to call this blog post finished, or as finished as it can be, realistically.  I'm going to bed now, to dream, perhaps, of another Kerry James Marshall painting...

"...I have to figure out how to project the image that I want to see represented in the world,

with the same kind of force, with the same kind of complexity, with the same kind of integrity."

--Kerry James Marshall