African-American History in Kerry James Marshall Exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

March 31, 2016

How do you attack and fight back a system that confronts your identity and history and attempts to place your heritage away from the spotlight? Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, demonstrates the 35 years of creation that has been rooted in the attempt to address the absence of African-American subjects and artists. Addressing the absence with the capital A, a remark made in the forward of the catalog that accompanies the exhibition by Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pritzker Director, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Marshall’s paintings are viewed knowledgeable in the art history subjects and movements, and as such, approach the museum on its own term. Know your enemy well if you are to change the system and prevail.

kerry james marshall exhibition
Left: Kerry James Marshall - A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980 / Right: Kerry James Marshall - Black Star 2, 2012. Images courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

The Invisible Men

For Marshall art history is his arena of work and struggle. Consistent and highly educated in all the different movements and approaches to painting, from large-scale interiors, landscapes and portraits, Marshall has, for over three decades now, addressed the near-complete absence of the black figures in art shown in museums. Exploring the narratives of African-American history, from slave ships to contemporary culture, the artist attacks from within. His images, which seem to almost exclusively feature the black subjects, showcase the way in which the African-American population has been marginalized and made invisible. Marshall’s subject matters were always relevant and timely, but at this particular moment, and the frequent witnessing of social and racial injustice, his paintings seem to be a powerful mirror to the present moment, placing Marshall as one of the important contemporary artists.

kerry james marshall exhibition
Lef: Kerry James Marshall - Scout (Girl), 1995 / Right: Kerry James Marshall - Scout (Boy), 1995. Images courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

The Narrative

Best known for the large-scale interiors, Marshall explores the different narratives of the African-American history. His powerful paintings confront the position of African-Americans, and depict the direct and intimate scenes of black middle-class life. Painted in vibrant colors and drawing upon the artist’s deep knowledge of art history from Renaissance to 20th Century art, we can see different sources for the inspiration and the approach to the paintings. From abstraction to comic books and muralist tradition, Marshall’s narratives are presented viewed from all the different angles and movements. Art history is a field that needs to be studied and strengthened and in the process changed, so that the invisible African- American history is made visible. The focus on the traditional is the tool necessary for the revisits and revises of the mainstream with the intent of opening the canon to new dimensions.

kerry james marshall exhibition
Left: Kerry James Marshal - Portrait of a Curator (In Memory of Beryl Wright), 2009 / Right: Kerry James Marshall - Untitled (Mirror Girl), 2014. Images courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Kerry James Marshall Exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

The artist, Kerry James Marshall, seems to have one goal in mind, and that is to master the art history and change it. Concerning his long-lasting artistic career with the question and approach of storytelling depicting African-American daily life and history, the artist wants to see the impact these stories would have on the grand tradition and master narratives associated with Western culture.

The exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, lasting from April 23 to September 25, 2016, is a first retrospective exhibition of this artist, considered to be one of the most influential American living painters. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, for this occasion, will focus on the paintings made over the last 35 years. Organized in a broadly chronological order, the exhibition considers the dominant themes in Marshall’s practice over the years, including history paintings, landscape, the nude, portraiture, religion, and abstraction.

All images courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Artist. Featured images in slider: Kerry James Marshall - Past Times (detail), 1997. Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, McCormick Place Art Collection. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago; Kerry James Marshall - Souvenir I, 1997. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Bernice and Kenneth Newberger Fund. © 1997 Kerry James Marshall. Photo: Joe Ziolkowski, © MCA Chicago; Kerry James Marshall - Better Homes, Better Gardens, 1994. Denver Art Museum Collection: Funds from Polly and Mark Addison, the Alliance for Contemporary Art, Caroline Morgan, and Colorado Contemporary Collectors: Suzanne Farver, Linda and Ken Heller, Jan and Frederick Mayer, Beverly and Bernard Rosen, Annalee and Wagner Schorr, and anonymous donors. © Kerry James Marshall. Photo courtesy of the Denver Art Museum; Kerry James Marshall - School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012. Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art; Museum purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth (Bibby) Smith, the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art, Jane Comer, the Sankofa Society, and general acquisition funds. Photo: Sean Pathasema.

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