For an upbeat view of the world seen through the eyes of one of today’s great artists, stop in at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The MCA, along with The Metropilitan Museum of Art, NYC and the Museum of Contemporary Art, LA, has brought together more than 80 important works of famed Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall in the artist’s first major retrospective.
The exhibition is titled “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” to reflect the artist’s deliberate goals of mastering different techniques to use for a variety of works ranging from portraits and landscapes to abstracts and collages. (BTW Mastry is not a typo.)
Part of the fun of seeing the exhibit is his version of history. Among Marshall’s goals is reinterpreting events from a black perspective to make up for the tiny amount of black faces and lifestyles generally portrayed in art works.
Be sure to look for “Vignette,” a scene of Adam and Eve running through the Garden of Eden. Instead of bleak, it is hopeful with bluebirds and butterflies. Instead of depicting Caucasians, it has a black couple. In addition, the male wears an Africa-shaped pendant signifying they may be heading to that continent.
“I don’t represent trauma, despair,” Marshall said during the exhibits opening April 23. Along with show co-curator Dieter Roelstraete, the artist was present to interpret his work. As Marshall moved through the rooms it was apparent that he was a happy soul. He pointed out that many of the paintings were joyous expressions of black work and life.
Going over to a romantic scene of two loving people silhouetted against a dark sky as they enjoy a beautiful seascape, Marshall said, “This is my favorite.” The picture is called “Untitled,” but he observes that quiet love and romance among black couples is missing from artistic works about African American lives.
As he stopped to explain the thinking that went on behind many of the works he threw out such phrases, “not interested in the drama of an event,” “interested in social structure,” ” the environment” and “think broadly.”
The show starts in the left hand rooms of the Griffin Galleries on the fourth floor with Marshall’s portraits of blacks, including himself, symbolically disappearing into black backgrounds because they are invisible in a white-dominated society.
It includes his famous “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His former self,” done in egg tempera on paper in 1980. Also in the room is “Two Invisible Men (The Lost Portraits)” that pairs white figure on white and black on black using acrylic on board. Look also for “Invisible Man” which Marshall said came out of his reading of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 book, “Invisible Man” about how a black man felt.
“This exhibit starts out simply and gets more complicated as the show evolves,” Marshall said. He added, “Blackness is essential.”
The first gallery is filled with small, deliberately darkly painted works. But upon moving on, you will see Marshall’s large-scale pieces in vibrant colors. He explained his large work as a counter measure to what existed. “The paintings in museums by black artists are small,” he said.
MCA Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn summed up the show. “It’s powerful, timeless and relevant,”she said.
Kerry James Marshal:l Mastry is at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611 now through Sept. 25, 2016. For admission and hours call 312-280-2660 and visit MCA. The show moves to The Metropolitan Museum of Art Oct. 25, 2016 and to the Museum of Contemporary Art Los angeles March 12, 2017.