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Kerry James Marshall reconstructs art history with black Americans at its center

A new retrospective at the MCA provides the most comprehensive introduction to the Chicago painter’s work to date.

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Art history has long served as an arena for white supremacy to proliferate. The white portraits that hang in museums reinforce the fiction that only white narratives guide history. After visiting the LACMA for the first time as an elementary-school student in 1965, Kerry James Marshall wanted to learn as much as possible about art, and while absorbing everything from Rembrandt to Roy Lichtenstein he quickly began to understand that fine art didn't depict people who looked like him. Noting the dearth of black representation in the art-historical canon, Marshall wrote his own history.

"Kerry James Marshall: Mastry," a new retrospective of Marshall's work now showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, follows the painter from his early book-size pieces to expansive canvases that proportionately develop his conceptual ambitions. Marshall's art includes abundant references to canonical paintings such as Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas (1656) and Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533), except the white bodies in those European images are absent. In their place stand vivid black subjects who stare at the viewer with a piercing force that intensifies the transgression against the white interpretation of art history. The subjects' eyes stand out because their skin is stark, symbolic black: charcoal, ebony, obsidian. Marshall paints human figures with the darkest shade of each composition's palette. They appear to be negative space, but they're all fiercely human.

Each room of the MCA's fourth-floor exhibition organizes Marshall's work chronologically and thematically. The oldest painting is also one of the smallest: A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980) measures 8 x 6.5 inches, depicting a man whose eyes and broken smile glow against a dark backdrop. The title nods to James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; conceptually, the image draws from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the 1952 novel that sparked a creative breakthrough for Marshall. Invisible Man interrogates the simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility of American blackness: throughout American history, whiteness has shut out black men and women from being subjects in culture, rendering blackness invisible; transgressions against that proscription, however, render blackness hypervisible, watched, targeted. Marshall's paintings further tangle with this paradox—the color and definition explore the fine line that whiteness must tread to preserve this dichotomy, to sanctify itself against marginalized cultures.

In the larger galleries, Marshall's tapestry-size pieces punch bright holes in the MCA's walls. The works belong in a museum, where they can engage in dialogue with the images that such institutions typically display, thereby disrupting the art-historical hegemony therein. One section of the exhibition, a re-creation of the 2003 installation Baobab Ensemble, has cushions on the floor for viewers to sit on, where they can browse clippings of art Marshall has used for reference. The interactive space collapses the divisions between artist and viewer and elucidates Marshall's process, but it also encourages the notion that his paintings are part of an active art-historical lineage. One can see what he's looking at when he's painting—his works aren't authoritative or isolated images, but mutations of existing historical themes and tropes.

The artworks also reveal their own material history: the largest pieces have no frames but hang bare from the walls. The creases are visible, indicating the years the objects spent folded away because Marshall lacked the space and resources to store them at their full dimensions. The human scale of the paintings facilitates a visceral identification with their subjects—the figures, engaged in rituals of intimacy or grief, are the size of real people. Marshall overlays symbols that zigzag across the frame, from dancing sheet music to a veve (a religious symbol typically used in voodoo) hovering in the air.

There are moments of love and sexuality in the exhibit. Two early-90s paintings hung across from each other portray figures in private romantic moments. In Slow Dance (1992-'93), a man and a woman embrace while the lyrics to a song arc above their heads. Could This Be Love (1992) catches a couple undressing in a bedroom; the man looks at the viewer while the words "What a Woman What a Woman" appear written next to his mouth, as if he's letting you in on a secret. These scenes represent the black subject as desirable, warm, and worthy of love, most overtly in They Know That I Know (1992), in which a black Adam and Eve make love at the base of the tree of life.

More violent paintings also grapple with archetypes traditionally represented by white bodies. In Beauty Examined (1993) there's a corpse whose arm has been skinned, an echo of Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). A coroner's identifications surround her, as does the platitude "Beauty is only skin deep." Diagram markers point out her "big ass," "big hips," "big waistline." The piece carries an implicit criticism of Western culture's obsession with dead, pretty white girls, but the body's symbolic dissection also foreshadows that of Michael Brown, whose coroner's report was published online in support of the state-sponsored argument that the fatal violence he suffered at the hands of a Ferguson, Missouri, cop was his fault alone.

Marshall's work acknowledges the systemic violence that has killed black Americans for decades, yet it subverts the ways in which the black body is identified as an object marked for death: red-and-white targets are the haloes of saints in The Ecstasy of Communion (1990), and the skull in Woman With Death on Her Mind (1990) glows gold. But Marshall's most arresting paintings show the world in all its luminous complexity, on street corners and in barbershops or living rooms, symbols of life amid structural racism's insistence on death.  v

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