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The Corrective Art History of Kerry James Marshall

Ahead of his retrospective 'Mastry,' the artist speaks on society and representation.

by B. David Zarley
Apr 6 2016, 8:20pm

De Style, 1993. Acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas, 100 x 120 inches. Digital image by Museum Associates/LACMA, courtesy of the MCA.

In the work of Kerry James Marshall, black figures are depicted in actual black pigments: ivory, mars, and carbon. “[This] establishes a kind of unequivocal fact of their presence,” the 60-year-old Chicago-based painter tells The Creators Project. “And when I first started using it, I used it as a rhetorical device. In the sense that when you say black people… let's say, Black Lives Matter. Well, when they say 'black lives matter,' what does that mean? What people will always say is that black people come in all kinds of shades of brown, so the rhetorical position that black people occupy is at the extreme of blackness.” 

This is the kind of no-compromises approach that has come to define Marshall’s oeuvre. Now, the work appears in Mastry, a career-spanning retrospective that will be shown at not one, but three of the nation’s largest museums: the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. 

Portrait of a Curator (In Memory of Beryl Wright), 2009. Acrylic on PVC panel, 30 ⅞ x 24 ⅞ x 1 ⅞ inches. Image courtesy of the artist and the MCA.

Mastry covers 35 years of work, from Marshall's formative 1980 Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, to Rhythm Mastr, a comic series that seeks to provide an affirmation for those who do not regularly see themselves portrayed in media or art. In an interview with Dieter Roelstraete, presented in Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff, Marshall lays out the central philosophy of his work: “All my life I've been expected to acknowledge the power and beauty of pictures made by white artists that only have other white people in them; I think it's only reasonable to ask other people to do the same vis-a-vis paintings that only have black figures in them. […] My work is not an argument against anything; it is an argument for something else.”

Kerry James Marshall portrait 2. Photo by Kendall Karmanian, courtesy of the MCA.

It is an effort to combat the lasting, damaging impacts of underrepresentation. “You pick up art history books and they are always talking about those people, and it's the same people from book to book to book,” Marshall explains. “At a certain point, it induces this notion that you are not one of those people that do great things.” Marshall’s technical proficiency is at once a wink at the sacred Western canon and the creation of his own—in essence, the redefinition of art history. Where many of today’s young black artists are focused on dismantling institutions, Marshall is actively engaged with changing them from within. “It's too easy to adopt an oppositional stand,” he says. “What makes it easy to do that is you're never really on the hook for demonstrating success when you take an oppositional approach to anything.”

Many Mansions, 1994. Acrylic on paper mounted on unstretched canvas, 114 x 135 inches. Photo by the Art Institute of Chicago, courtesy of the MCA.

Instead, with his own canon firmly enshrined, destined to show in three of the nation’s premiere museums, Marshall has his sights set on popular culture. Set in Bronzeville, Rhythm Mastr stars the titular hero, an elderly man, and his protege Farell, whom he teaches to use traditional African drumming techniques to animate ancient African and Egyptian statues. Their adventures incorporate everything from gang violence and socioeconomic politics to science fiction and superhero motifs. Asks Marshall, “Can you produce a science-fiction thriller that takes place within a black community, that has nothing but black people in it, but that's equally as powerful as Star Wars?” Few are more qualified to create their own answer. 

Rhythm Mastr, 1999-present. Image courtesy of the artist and the MCA

Mastry opens April 23rd at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Click here for more information.

Related:

An Artist Is Reimagining Black History Through Experimental Film

Detroit Exhibition Showcases 30 Years of Black Contemporary Art

A Foundation's Mission to Spotlight Self-Taught Southern Black Artists

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