Pleasure and Pain: Kerry James Marshall’s “Mastry”

Met Breuer Oct 25, 2016—Jan 29, 2017

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The Garden Project Installation View

“Mastry” is in part pleasure, in part pain. Are the parts equal? That’s what I feel so confused about.

In the wall info next to an early self-portrait, Marshall refers to Ralph Ellison: “Ellison’s notion of being and not-being, the simultaneity of presence and absence, was exactly what I was trying to get at in my work.” This statement rings truer to the affect of this show than the simpler (?), more positive (?) aims of putting the images of black people on to the walls of the museum or showing that black is beautiful. (I can’t understand why the latter is still or ever was in question. I suppose if you have an eye for beauty, it’s obvious and if you don’t, it isn’t.)

The way that Marshall adds images of black people while relentlessly insisting that they are missing is a wonderful painterly invention. The figures appear completely black in the midst of surroundings that are full of color and light and interest. It’s impossible to focus on the delicately drawn features without going very close to the paintings and peering into their faces. I admire this great use of one of painting’s unique assets—the viewers’ feet.

Past Times (detail), 1997

Past Times (detail), 1997

 

Cub Scout (detail), 1995

Cub Scout (detail), 1995

Very often the faces are looking directly back at us and their expression is hard to read. Sometimes they simply seem to be interrupted by having their picture taken, sometimes literally posing for a photograph, sometimes reproachful or sad and hurt. I don’t know which of the last three is hardest to bear.

Hey, Mr. Marshall, I think you wanted me to feel the horror and the loss that racism has wrought and I do.

Bang, Campfire, Our Town installation view

Bang, Campfire, Our Town installation view

I feel it most particularly in the group of paintings that includes “The Garden Project” and paintings of suburban and urban life. I don’t know if anger and sarcasm and ironic fantasy have ever been combined with such a visual feast in this way before. The housing project signs, Wentworth Gardens, Nickerson Gardens, etc. (so cruel but surely not originally meant to be?) are aged, defaced and graffitied; the most caustic trompe l’oeil ever. The series contains every painting technique in the book; realism, collage, abstract expression, stamps, drips, etc. They also include every visual symbol of American prosperity, aspiration and material luxury, silly maybe, not real, but everybody deserves a little piece of it, right?

Our Town (detail), 1995

Our Town (detail), 1995

Actually many of the paintings in the show make me feel resentful—what a superb facile expert at manipulating the artworld and my feelings too! But I don’t feel that at all in this group because Marshall is so clearly sharing those feelings and it is all there visually. In Our Town, I pondered the girl running along with the boy on the bike…if I isolated them…but no, something is wrong with the dog…it’s all wrong, oh my god, he’s biting the girl’s foot. Ditto in Bang—the flag covers the boy, they all three stand on the shape of the grave, no matter how I try, I cannot make it all right.

I saw Aretha Franklin perform just a few years ago and near the end of the concert she sat down at the piano and said, “Nobody has ever asked me to sing Easter Parade and I’ve always wanted to.” And then she did. I wish Marshall would.

Two paintings were an almost unalloyed joy though, for which I felt, under the circumstances, you know, so grateful.

De Style, 1993

De Style, 1993

Everything I’ve said about the visual feast of “The Garden Project” applies here too—the drape is beautiful, the reflections, the linoleum floor (I grew up with that in my house so I know it is perfect.) The black barbershop, I’ve always thought I’d fit right in: I love to shoot the shit, joke around, I play chess! Do you think the barriers of racism and sexism will ever dissolve completely enough to include me? In my lifetime?

Untitled (Studio), 2014

Untitled (Studio), 2014

I feel happy even more so in this painting. In my mind I work on the painting, comparing it to the model. The palette is very cleverly painted. The yellow dog is a quote I think, Nauman, Wegman or maybe someone else, and is also an epithet for a person who always votes for the Democratic Party, like me—well, what choice is there? And lastly I love paintings of studios that include models and dogs and visitors—they aren’t so lonely.

– CNQ