Recently, the Met Breuer Museum held an exhibit of art by Kerry James Marshall. Bwog sent Bwogger Leo Bevilacqua to review the exhibit.
The Met Breuer’s recent retrospective of Kerry James Marshall’s work titled “Mastry” had a fascinating response to masterpieces of western literature, art, and philosophy. Marshall, having been raised in segregation, had a different perception of western culture. Like most students at Columbia today, he struggled to relate to a canon dominated by white, prominent men. Having experienced his own share of odysseys, battles, and traumas, Marshall, through his work, re-interpreted the canon with him and his struggles as a Black male in segregation taking center stage. The result was both visually stunning and tremendously profound. His artwork dazzles, inspires, and revolutionizes.
The exhibition began with two large murals depicting daily life in his neighborhood. One mural called “School of Beauty, School of Culture” depicted a barber shop, which he had fashioned as a classical Greek school of Philosphy, chock full of jubilant figures with high, magnificent hair does. The barber shop functioned like a school for people in his community to receive wisdom from their stylists, who acted like a Socrates or a Plato. Children ran about and patrons rejoiced in the comfort of each others company and ideas. Another mural, “Lost Boys”, depicted a boy rocking back and forth on a toy car with the date of his deaths written below. The painting depicted the lost generation of Black children who died as a result of police brutality, strictly enforced segregation, and poverty. One can see how Marshall likened himself as an Aeneas but glorifying his people by paint brush instead of by sword. His depictions of the horrors of segregation, comparable to the emotional intensity of the sacking of Troy, fleshed out the struggles within the Black experience.
One of the last paintings, “Souvenir I”, depicted what appeared to be a heavenly waiting room with the faces of martyrs memorialized on the walls. The faces of JFK, RFK, MLK Jr., Malcom X, and others looked down upon a black angel who looked back at viewers with intensity and challenge. The piece, a spin on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, likened the plight of civil rights activists to a heavenly clash with evil, intolerance. Another painting, titled “Memento #5”, depicted a Black woman breaking apart the bars of her prison with the date of each decade of the 60’s written between each bar. Again, faces of martyrs of the civil rights movement were etched into the clouds at the top of the painting. The mostly silver painting has the same phrase repeated at the bottom, “What a time.” Overall, the two works complement each other in depicting racism in all its depravity and activism in all its heavenly glory.
The exhibition is noteworthy because of the revolutionary way in which it redefines the Western canon and also in its brutally honest depiction of the plights of Blacks in the civil rights era. Going from his early works which struggled with the white washing of religious figures to his later works which re-interpreted Rorschach tests, Marshall demonstrated tremendous range. Tackling the classics of western literature, art, and philosophy is an ambitious task but Marshall’s incisive, poignant, and truthful work accomplishes just that.
Met Breuer via the Metropolitan Museum of Art