Walking up the steps of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art last week, I saw a middle-aged African American couple herding a handful of children through the museum’s revolving doors. Once inside, they greeted a large group of friends, ranging in age from middle schoolers to white-haired ladies. I knew where they were going, because it was where I was headed as well: the MCA’s special exhibit Kerry James Marshall: Mastery, on display from April 23 to Sept 25, 2016.
I had first heard of Marshall’s exhibit at my last visit to the MCA in April, and was struck by the vibrant posters. Because Wheaton College IDs qualified students for the museum’s free admission to Illinois residents on Tuesdays, I made a trip into the city last week to see the exhibit for myself. What I expected was beauty, power and mastery. But what I encountered was a new and unexpected version of a story I thought I had understood.
In a video playing at the beginning of his exhibit, Alabama native Marshall provided an intellectual and courageous explanation of his portraits of African American men and women. It is clear he has an extensive background in Art History, drawing on classic models of the past such as an artist’s self portrait, an allegorical depiction of the Garden of Eden, and most famously, a “Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master” that serves as a modern recasting of Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath”. However, Marshall uses these traditional references to project his own ideals into the gallery — ideals that normalize the lives, history and value of men and women of color. Most of these paintings depict ordinary, everyday scenes such as sweet Harlem courtship scenes, inner city gardeners, and portraits of men and women who seem fully aware and content.
Perhaps it is the color black itself that is Marshall’s primary tool to create meaning in his work. The signature blackness of his figures throughout the collection was incredibly rich and stunning. Unlike many painters, Marshall does not combine black with any other colors for dilution. Instead, the black stands alone on the canvas, forcing the viewer to reconsider their pre-existing associations with the color. As I contemplated the dark faces stark against their vibrant backgrounds, I was drawn to the concept of black as a way of life, rather than a political statement. Contemporary media conceives so many connotations with the word “black” that in no way could it measure up to the richness of the men and women Marshall has portrayed in his work. By simply putting color on a canvas, he is inviting the viewer to reconsider what they mean when they talk about “black lives”. We think we know the story, but what are we taking for granted? How are our connotations from concepts like “Black Lives Matter” preventing us from learning about and appreciating the experiences of African Americans throughout history? While the world and media may work to politicize the lives of men and women of color, Marshall is simply trying to depict them.
In Marshall’s own words, “You can’t underestimate the value of a figure in an image that seems self-satisfied.” In fact, self-satisfaction seems to be what this artist does best. In each new space I entered, I was brought face-to-face with the gaze of men and women who carried no shame in their experiences, no apology in their existence. The gallery of people surrounding me was electric with unassuming pride. African-American mothers and fathers with their children, students with notebooks, young couples; all surrounded by large, vibrant portraits that seemed to declare with paint and color that, yes, black lives matter. Yes, the black experience matters, and yes, here is one man working to “normalize” that concept.
Kerry James Marshall places value on the color black. It is his medium — his norm. In an art world of dimpled blondes and pale-faced war heroes, he is telling an unheard story. Throughout history, the works of male and female artists of color have been received with awkward silence or placed in political categories. Stories that we, as Christians of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds, have a responsibility to hold in both hands and continue to deliver to others. The unpoliticized, honest perspectives of African Americans may have been largely excluded from the art world until now, but Marshall’s work brings hope that the normalization of that presence starts today.
(I originally wrote this piece for The Record, my school newspaper, and it was published this past Thursday, September 1! You can find out more about the MCA here)