March 12-July 3, 3017
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Kerry James Marshall has said of his childhood, “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it”(Art21, PBS, 2008). Marshall was privy, from a very young age, to some of the most racially charged and publicized events of the civil rights movement. During this same era of violence, protests, and riots, Marshall was also drawing prodigiously and going on class field trips to view the extensive collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
No doubt Marshall absorbed more about both race relations in twentieth-century America and the history of art than most children, if his artistic practice is any indication of his ability to process information. The nearly 80 of Marshall’s paintings on view in his retrospective at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art make use of multiple painting traditions from the Renaissance up to post-minimalist abstraction. Nothing in Marshall’s technique, though, renders his paintings derivative or simply appropriative; they look entirely original, even as he borrows liberally from the art-historical canon. The canon, in fact, is one of Marshall’s favorite subjects, both in his use of conventional tropes and in his concerted efforts to expand the canon to include representations of black figures. In his School of Beauty School of Culture (2012), for instance, Marshall takes as his subject a south-side Chicago beauty parlor catering to black clientele. The figures include customers, stylists, and children all going about their everyday lives, some posing for Marshall’s camera (we see the artist and his camera flash in a mirror in the painting’s background). The setting is loaded with allegorical details to rival any Hans Holbein painting: patterned fabrics, posters for Chris Ofili and Lauryn Hill, photos of musicians and pop stars, and ads for Ultra Glow and Dark and Lovely. There’s even a play on Holbein’s famous anamorphic rendering of a skull from his 1533 painting The Ambassadors, but with the iconic white Disney princess from Sleeping Beauty replacing the memento mori.
The visual vocabulary of Marshall’s paintings makes Mastry a wide-ranging exhibition rich in detail and substance. Besides beauty parlors and barbershops, Marshall takes on subjects like housing developments in Chicago, the city where he has lived for over 20 years; the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton; and historical photos of slaves and prisoners. He also plays with such traditional Western painting mainstays as views of the artist’s studio and color field abstraction. As if to drive home the point of Marshall’s voracious interest in visual art and culture, one gallery of Mastry contains an installation of hundreds of images culled from magazines, postcards, and other printed materials, all spread across the floor in wild disarray. This is Marshall’s image archive, and in the material manifestation of his own process of collecting and processing various forms of visual information, viewers gain access to the development of artworks that celebrate and investigate all facets of black culture.