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“… in the paintings, I try to enact that same tendency toward the theatrical that seems to be so integral a part of the Black cultural body.” —Kerry James Marshall from a 1998 article in Bomb Magazine.

Drawing is a staple of everyone’s childhood and is an important avenue of cognitive development. Very few of us continue this activity into adulthood, and fewer still progress to the point where it becomes a profession or life’s work. Los Angeles-bred Kerry James Marshall has transcended this and more. Today, he is internationally known for his artwork (especially paintings) commenting on the narrative of the African-American experience.

His canvases are saturated with cultural allusions, entendre, and references to the Civil Rights Era in which he grew up, punctuated by pop culture elements from late 20th century America. The assembled pieces are a testament to his stated objective to propagate Black imagery into a sterile milieu saturated with the heritage of a Eurocentric tradition.

“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” a 35-year retrospective of this home-grown product of Thomas Jefferson High/ and Otis College of Art is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), in Downtown Los Angeles.

It views through July 3.

Meditations on a migrational childhood

Starting life in Birmingham, Al., then known as a hotbed of progressive advancement, as the nation struggled with the labor pains of birthing an integrated society, Marshall moved to Los Angeles as a child, in time to witness first hand the Watts Uprising/Riot. The events transpiring before his eyes left a legacy that infused the content of his later work. One indelible image from that period was a giant Jack in the Box fast food statue on the corner of Central Avenue, offset against the pitch blackness of the sky, a wall of flames from the burning buildings behind it.

In an interview with the New Yorker in November 2016, he stated “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Al., in 1955 and grow up in South Central Los Angeles 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.”

Other cultural/historical events that came into play at the time included the Black Panther shootouts of the late 1960s, and Marvel Comics’ introduction of its Black Panther character during the same period.

Race is at the forefront of the imagery projected on Marshall’s canvases, possibly as a counterpoint to the dearth of Black images in the Euro-centric art history he absorbed in his educational journey to become (in his words) “a properly schooled artist.”

Visual artists (and people of color regardless of vocation) struggle with the cultural perceptions of an alien society that are not necessarily in sync with the groups one identifies with. This resulting “cultural mash up” often makes for a more unique, compelling byproduct of differing, dissimilar ingredients, with no apparent commonality.

Helen Molesworth, MOCA’s chief curator and organizer of Marshall’s current exhibit, summed up the impact of his creative output. His work “… makes the claim that there is no either/or when it comes to African-American history or American history. The work establishes that those two categories are completely intertwined and dependent upon one another.”

The road to inclusion

Entertainment options were limited for 20th century youngsters compared to those of millennium youth, but even in the inner city, comic books were an attractive outlet (Marvel Comics were especially popular in the ‘hood, since their protagonists tended to be outcasts who never quite fit in, unlike their DC Comics counterparts).

Marshall consumed these sequential publications along with his peers and wrapped them up in his art. His youthful experimentations with tracing, then copying comic book images got a boost from committed instructors in his middle and high school. And the introduction of government funding in response to the urban strife in America’s ghettos provided an influx of capital for extracurricular activities for youth programs populated by Marshall’s generation.

Operation Bootstrap Inc. was one byproduct of this cash infusion. The establishment of this self-help, community-based organization was best known for the launch of Shindana Toys, which manufactured ethnic dolls. Attempting to put a positive spin on the “Burn Baby Burn” slogan popularized by the riots, Operation Bootstrap adopted the motto “Learn Baby Learn” to initiate job training, and self-esteem building workshops. An art competition offshoot of this program paved the way for young Marshall’s path to Otis. There he fell under the sway of Charles Wilbert White, Betye Saar, and other African American artistic figures to emulate.

A degree from Otis enabled him to develop his own style by building on the classical traditions of European masters he’d studied, which he augmented with the ethnocentric experiences of his youth.

Included in the show at MOCA is a black on black painting from this period, “Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of my Former Self,” utilizing “tropes (redundant figurative imagery)” that would reappear in subsequent works. These include pitch black, simplified, stylized figures rendered as flat (but still recognizably figurative) objects.

“Portrait of the Artist” is unsettling in its own right, because this image of a pitch black figure against a slightly lighter background evokes memories of racist stereotypes like blackface minstrel shows, Sambos (loyal and contented Black servants), and other offensive metaphors from a bygone era. Above all, they allude to the Ralph Ellison classic “Invisible Man (1952).” This solitary figure confronts the viewer, and the whites of the corneas of the figure’s eyes and gap-toothed smile standing out from the rest of the picture like a lighthouse in a desolate sea, much like the unnoticed protatonist in Ellison’s novel.

The legacy of Marshall’s paintings of jet-black figures continued with “Two Invisible Men Naked (1985),” and “The Lost Boys (1993).” The 1992 work “This Could Be Love,” is especially poignant, with its depiction of an African American couple undressing in a bedroom, while above them hover the lyrics of a Mary Wells/Motown “oldie” of 1963—“two lovers, and I love them both the same.” Scattered about the room are paraphernalia of an amorous association: a painted heart, paperback romance novels, and a statuette of a Black Venus.

Homecoming

Ret·ro·spec·tive. An adjective meaning 1.Looking back on or dealing with past events or situations. 2. Noun. An art exhibition or compilation of work showing the development of the work of a particular artist over a period of time.

Marshall has dabbled in a variety of mediums including collage and sculpture (befitting his grounding in art history), and they along with his “Rythm Mastr” comics are on view. The latter is a byproduct of his youthful fascination with cartooning, but his paintings remain the focal point of this exhibition.

Pastoral paintings have been a staple of Western Art since Greek and Roman times, but being a creature of habit, Marshall gives his versions of such work a contemporary, urban slant. Offered here are depictions of the public housing projects that are a bedrock of the post World War II African American experience. From 1994, “Better Homes, Better Gardens” features Chicago’s (the city where Marshall has lived, taught, and painted for the last few decades), Wentworth Gardens; while “Watts 1963 (1995)” depicts Los Angeles’ Nickerson Gardens, where his family settled, after arriving in the City of Angels after migrating from the south.

The showing in Los Angeles is the last leg of a traveling exhibition that was mounted by the staff at MOCA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (of New York City) and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

As Molesworth explains, efforts were made to include these three cities that were important in Marshall’s artistic maturity (he gained his professional footing in New York City during a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and met his wife, actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce there).

“We always hoped to bring the exhibition to Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, because they are America’s largest cities and all play a central role in Marshall’s life,” she said.

Much has happened in the decades since Kerry James Marshall embarked upon his artistic journey. Today, imagery of the African Diaspora abounds, bombarding the global psyche in every imaginable medium.

Meanwhile, Marshall is in demand from coast to coast as well as locales abroad. He is a requested essayist and lecturer in academic environs.

A creator open to experimentation in a variety of media, Marshall has served as a production designer for the motion picture “Daughters of the Dust” (1991) by Julie Dash, and “Sankofa” (1993) by Haile Gerima. In past interviews, he has expressed an interest in exploring the graphic novel format, and animated filmmaking. With the millennium well under way, and new technologies emerging by the minute, Kerry James Marshall is likely to remain a vital, thought-provoking voice for years to come.

“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” continues through July 3 at The Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For more information, call (213) 626-6222, or visit http://www.moca.org.