The culture of blackness in Kerry James Marshall’s art
When I saw the first almost-covering-the-wall painting by Kerry James Marshall, I zeroed in on the charcoal black faces of the men who peopled it. They were in a barber shop, much like any you’d find in any black neighborhood in any city in this country.
The painting was called “De Style,” and Marshall focused on the suave demeanor of a group of men hanging out in a barbershop likely on a Saturday morning. As I perused the painting, I saw more than just the men but the cultural paraphernalia of their lives.
A small red and white container with the words “Royal Crown Dressing” sat atop one counter, and I immediately recognized it. The day before, I had seen an actual container of the hair dressing in the shop of my hairstylist. I knew Royal Crown as a child, but didn’t know that hairstylists still used it. It was a creamy thick pomade that was used to help “straighten” the tiny curls on the heads of African American daughters and oil the scalps of sons. Marshall apparently had had the same experience and borrowed it to use in this painting.
That’s what I liked about Marshall’s works. There was so much going on in them that you couldn’t just look at the surface. You had to dig deeper to see and hear the story he was telling, and what looked like insignificant elements were pivotal in the telling.
I saw an exhibit titled “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Breuer building in New York last weekend. I was in the city with friends to see the play “Hamilton” (the second time for three of us, the first for the rest of the group). I had not heard of Marshall, 61, until about a month ago when a neighbor told me that she had wandered into his exhibit while at the Met Breuer.
After Googling Marshall, I knew that I wanted to see his works in person but I had to hurry. The exhibit ended on Sunday. It had started at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago last year, then on to the Met and is headed to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles from March 12 to July 3, 2017. The exhibit included 80 works, 72 of which were paintings. This one also included works by artists from the Met collection who influenced him.
Marshall was born in Birmingham, AL, grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Chicago. He has been an artist for 35 years, executing paintings, drawings, videos and installations. He has also created a comic-book series called “Rhythm Mastr” as a way to create his own black comic heroes.
He seemed to have found his precise calling as an artist in 1993 with two paintings he did on a grand scale. One was “De Style” and the other was “The Lost Boys,” which showed two boys playing, along with the dates when each was killed.
“When I finished those, I felt like I had arrived at a moment when I was more sure of myself as an artist and what I wanted to do, and how to do it, than I had been up to that moment,” Marshall said in an interview last year. “There was a kind of clarity.
“There was also resolution in the paintings. They operated on all of the levels that I wanted them to – scale, the complexity of subject, the treatment (of paint and technique) – all of those things seemed to come together in those two pictures in a way that I had always been struggling with before, but had hit right on the mark at that time.”
Marshall’s acrylic paintings are huge, and his people are larger than life. Looking at the paintings from one end to another is like walking a short city block. In fact, one of his paintings shows a block on the South Side of Chicago in the 2000s, which the description noted was reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s “Early Sunday Morning (1930),” showing a desolate urban street at dawn in New York. For me, Marshall’s “7am Sunday Morning (2003)” was brighter and a lot more hopeful.
As I toured the exhibit, I looked for other cultural items in Marshall’s paintings that I could identify with. The barbershop painting also held an old Zenith transistor radio (which was probably dialed into a local black radio station playing soul music) and black hair-care products.
In “Slow Dance (1992-1993),” a partially hidden Ebony magazine was tucked on a table into the corner of the painting. It showed a couple dancing to “Baby, I’m for Real,” a 1969 song by the Originals. Above their heads, Marshall had drawn the musical notes and words for the song. The description noted that the painting was among the first to focus on black love and romance.
There were other examples of black love in another part of the exhibit, including a kissing couple with a childhood-familiar Goodyear tire swing hanging from a tree. This painting was titled “Untitled (Vignette)” from 2012. Marshall’s aim, according to the description, was to portray black love free from violence, and filled with “normalcy and sweet fantasy.” It worked because this was a very quiet and peaceful scene.
I enjoyed others of his paintings because of their beauty and messages. “Bang (1994)” showed three African American children in the suburbs pledging their love to the country and the flag as they celebrated the 4th of July – as most Americans of whatever race do. On the painting, Marshall wrote its theme: “We are One,” the same title as a song by Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly.
Elsewhere on the walls were vast urban scenes of life in the housing projects – where Marshall lived for a short time as an 8-year old when his family first moved to South Central Los Angeles – with their own messages of hope.
One of my favorites was a portrait of John and Harriett Tubman titled “Still Life with Wedding Portrait (2015),” of Tubman and her first husband. The painting also showed three hands in white gloves and one in black gloves positioning the portrait on a wall. (Interestingly, the painting had sold at auction in 2015.)
Last year, Marshall told an interviewer that he wanted to get more black people on canvases in museums. “There is nothing more satisfying, really, than solving the problem of: how do you get more work that has the black figure in it into museums around the world?” he said.
He’s one step closer to getting more of those images there. Here are some of his works. Enjoy them as much as I did.