Amidst the political furore surrounding the inauguration of the grand vizier renowned for unashamed racism, the touring exhibition of Kerry James Marshall seems timely, and in it’s own way, a godsend. As the US inexorable charges ahead the additional chapter as a racially divided culture, the political urgency of this particular exhibition is palpable to the threshold of poignancy. The exhibition’s merit – the largest retrospective of the living Afro-American artist by a major institution – lies perhaps in it’s benevolent finesse and in the undeniably graceful virtuosity with which Kerry James Marshall handles a troubled inheritance as well as the prospects of the future.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, nearly 10 years separate the prolific artist from the civil rights activist Angela Davis (who has recently celebrated her 73rd birthday), yet they both share the abject reality that has taken shape during their early years, together with the social consciousness heavily influenced by the partisan politics of ‘Black Panthers’. In the artist’s own words it was impassable to live next to such a force de nature without being perturbed by the supremacy of the revolutionary ideas, hence by synthesising previous experiences Marshall’s own voice was moulded. Seeking refuge in art Marshall quickly remarked the absence of protagonists to identify himself with, and the task of addressing the absence of race was the one he irreverently seeked to correct.
The scale of the exhibition which spans across two floors at The Met is an impromptu comment of the subject’s importance.
Employing a vast amount of techniques Marshall’s practice morphs the mastery of historical painting with modern socio-cultural concerns as the historical canon is simultaneously embraced and refuted. Marshall’s oeuvre is dominated by the seemingly mundane, the lack of a stereotypical depiction of the black legacy as impoverished or abject translates as empowering, dignifying and above all ennobling. By preceding cultural artefact and social glitter Marshall seeks to normalize his black protagonists, as they carry on with the banality of the everyday, the highly calibrated work enforces intellectual engagement with the viewer.
Whimsy isn’t in Marshall’s vocabulary.
The visual language advocates for ‘de stijl’, a style endorsed by Mondrian in which simplified focus and primary colours dominate vast canvases, yet the striking feature lies in the deliberately unapologetic blackness of Marshall’s elegiac portraitures.
Here the blackness becomes both a metaphor and manifesto, a rhetorical device which Marshall deploys with unprecedented virtuosi. The chromatic value – ‘colour’s pure state without addition of white’ Marshall seeks to achieve in his work is in many ways uncanny and painstakingly confronting both as an identifier and contextual underpinning for the perception of black beauty. In its most primordial sense black is defined by the absence of colour and it is that exact issue Marshall addresses in his oeuvre rendering the presence to the invisible.
Yet it would be a grave erratum to reduce Marshall’s work to the emendation of past ill’s.
The sophistication of his narrative is that it seamlessly underpins the mundane in an elegant way as a means of conveying the arduous subject of race and identity with judicious strength.
The scale of the exhibition which spans across two floors at The Met is an impromptu comment of the subject’s importance. When confronted with the large scale canvases which are imbued with defiance in its normality, a sense of dignity and equality much needed in these difficult times arises.
The exhibition is on view until 29th January at Met Brauer before it continues it’s journey to LA