The Museum of Contemporary Art calls the newest talents to its impressive upstairs exhibition space to challenge and comment on common perspective. To walk through the top floor exhibition space is to see where the walls where the traveling “David Bowie Is” was once displayed and where the Martin Creed retrospective was first shown in the U.S. The MCA is at the forefront of the art scene in bringing varied types of art of both content and technique to the center stage. The MCA leans away from the classic style of old master works that deal with wealth and prestige, and instead gear the narrative to more political and social conversations of race and gender. When studying art history, the techniques and kinds of storytelling perfected by the old masters of both sculpture and painting are made of and by white men. However, in an intriguingly thoughtful, moving, and smart exhibition, Kerry James Marshall in the newest exhibition to take the top floor space brings “Mastry” and begins to shape how art history will forever be taught.
The largest ever retrospective of Marshall’s work is comprised mainly of paintings. The paintings line the walls in the same way as famed “Las Meninas“ by Diego Velázquez or “The Ambassadors“ by Hans Holbein the Younger hang. Both Velázquez and Holbeing being just two of the masters Marshall mimics in his own work, become “Mastry.” Many of the paintings are done in beautiful color. Gold leaf is used as both border and detail. “Mastry” is a fully striking exhibition that just by the use of color, texture, and range of value is striking and wonderfully captivating.
“Mastry” begins with race. Each person portrayed is done in pure black paint— nowhere else is black paint used. A man and woman smiling just before getting engaged is one of the first paintings presented in the gallery and so the blue of the ring box and the overall pastel tones of the clothes and the booths of the cafe the couple sit at serve as a contrast to the black paint. In general, black paint is taught not to be used at all, or, if the teacher is less obeying to the traditional concept, black paint is used sparingly and as the final color to be applied to a painting. Marshall breaks this fundamental rule and so, inherently, as the frequented artist types who visit the museum notice, not only is it black people who are represented, but black paint is used. The black paint thereby heightens Marshall’s main point in bringing the black person and their history into the high art scene. This artistic choice, one that is provocative in two ways, proves to be one of the most ingenious and not only thought provoking but beautiful choices of any contemporary artist’s work. Marshall, in speaking of his color choice says, “I tend to think having that extreme of color, that kind of black, is amazingly beautiful…and powerful. What I was thinking to do with my image was to reclaim the image of blackness as an emblem of power.”
The first painting shown is one of Marshall’s earliest pieces titled, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self.” The figure sits on the page as a typical portrait piece would, centered and cut off mid torso. Three colors, black, white, and a mixed grey-blue are easily picked out. The whole body is painted black except for the white color of the man’s shirt, the whites of the eyes, and the white of the teeth shown in a gaping grin, one tooth painted black. The painting next to this is titled, “Portrait of the Artist & a Vacuum.” The composition follows the title, the same portrait as described hanging on a reddish orange wall with a bright yellow and almost grey-green colored vacuum sitting in the foreground. Both pieces presage the sorts of painting that Marshall sets out to create in who and what he depicts; representing the everyday lives of African Americans today and in history. Marshall says, “If you’re constantly being reminded of the ways in which your history and your narrative as a people were rooted in loss and decay, then you’re in deep trouble. Once you make a certain kind of peace with the past, then you should be completely oriented towards speculation about the future.”
The Master painters depicted great Kings, Queens, and all sorts of aristocrats sometimes on their “Grand Tour” as a manner to show such figures as well traveled. In the same way, the Masters would paint such individuals in their everyday as a way to seem more “at-one” with the people. Marshall celebrates contemporary African American life by creating images at the barber shop or a proposal as the everyday. Nodding to the Master painters Marshall creates images that does not draw lines between people but instead to make the world more interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful. Marshall’s “Mastry” is an exhibition is not only worth seeing in the next couple weeks before it leaves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but is one to frequent to multiple times to take in both the craft and the imagery so ingeniously depicted by one of the newest masters.