BY Carolyn Twersky
Going to an art exhibit three times may seem excessive, but when it comes to Kerry James Marshall: Mastry it wasn’t even close to enough.
I first experienced Mastry through the Northwestern course Art and Activism. The exhibit was subtle when compared to the other aggressive, anti-establishment works we were looking at in the class. Marshall’s message was just as powerful, however. His goal to chronicle the African American experience and place it in museums, where it is often forgotten, was obvious in his work. Unlike the other artists we studied, instead of insulting and turning his back on museums, Marshall worked to change them, to include his stories and prove their relevance and worthiness to be there.
Marshall grew up with a wide range of inspirations, including two of his teachers who were prominent black artists at the time of his school. He learned very quickly about the racial discrimination that runs deep through the art world. Black faces were almost non-existent in his art education. This didn’t discourage Marshall, but inspired him to do the impossible: change the history of art. He is doing so by tackling a variety of styles with one overlying theme – the African American experience. From Rococo all the way up to modern comic strips, Mastry, displays the immense scale that Marshall has mastered.
Marshall was successful in this thanks to his ability to take the African American experience and present it to the fullest on canvas. Marshall paints everyday scenes – barbershops, camping trips, bedrooms, but every one of them is filled with symbolism. Everything in the painting is intentional in telling the story – from the abstract splotches to the coal black used to color his characters. His paintings hold their own next to some of art’s greatest history paintings.
When I first experienced Marshall’s work, I was in awe. How did I not know about this master before? His talent is immediately obvious and his ability to tell a complete story in one canvas is breathtaking. I spent hours at the MCA, digesting every piece and left completely inspired. Marshall was all I could talk about. When my parents dropped me off at school this fall, I brought them to the MCA so they could witness the show I had been raving about for months. I insisted that my brother, who is fairly shallow when it comes to art, would enjoy it as well. The four of us entered the exhibit on one of the last days of its showing and I was overcome with excitement. Since my last excursion, I had learned so much more about Marshall, his life, his inspirations. The pieces, which originally overwhelmed me with their aesthetics, now did so for a whole new reason. Even my brother enjoyed the show.
Of course, that was not the end of my Marshall experience. The second I returned home for winter break I ran off to the Met Breuer in New York City, the exhibit’s next stop, to see what the Met curators would do differently. What caught my eye was not Marshall’s works, which I now knew all too well, but a side room, comprised of pieces from the Met’s permanent collection, Kerry James Marshall Selects. The extreme range of his chosen pieces encompassed everything the Met had to offer; from Renaissance paintings to Seurat, to Japanese prints – not surprising when compared to the range that Marshall has mastered.
Recently, it seems like everything, whether it be music, art, sports or fashion, is political, and Marshall’s work is no exception. In a time of exclusion and hate, Marshall is working to make museums, infamously some of the most exclusive gathering spots in culture, a place for all. As the exhibit makes its way across the country – off to LA next – it brings in audiences that may have never thought to spend the afternoon in a museum. His works reimagine the role of art in our lives by lowering its exclusivity and allowing it to be enjoyed by all. I will constantly be impressed by what Marshall can do. Now I just need to plan a trip to LA to see how MOCA pulls it off because, like I said, three times just isn’t enough.