The size and scope of Kerry James Marshall paintings are enough to stop you in your tracks, but as you go through the new Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago exhibit you’ll realize that the artist’s work was missing from your life and from art history.
The title of the exhibit “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” has more than one meaning—as do many of Marshall’s own paintings—as it can be interpreted as calling the artist a master, or that if you look at those who are considered old masters none of them are black and there are barely any black people in any of their work. By combining all the techniques of the old masters and using it to project his own worldview and style, Marshall shines a beautiful light on what was once invisible.
When standing in front of a Marshall painting the first thing that will grab you is the size. Outside of murals, painters of color aren’t often presenting their works in a large scale like many of the old masters, so Marshall fights this with pieces that cover up entire walls at the MCA.
After marveling at the size, you can spend an hour alone in front every Marshall painting. The amount of symbolism in every inch of his paintings is like finding Easter eggs in a film. The beauty of “Untitled (Painter)” is radiating . If you’re a student of art history you’ll soon realize the similarities between that painting and Vigée LeBrun’s “Self-Portrait” from 1880. There are other differences beside the fact that the subject is black; for instance, the self-portrait the subject is painting is paint-by-numbers, which represents a system and a set of rules. The subject ignores the system to create her own style of painting. In essence, Marshall has this foundation of an old master work by LeBrun and inserts the representation of powerful, talented, and confident black female artists and how they ignore the system—a system one could say ignores them—to create true art.
You will find this amount of symbolism and beauty in every single one of Marshall’s works. Mixing colors into his black paint but not mixing black paint into any other colors, the influence of pop culture demonstrated in song lyrics painted onto the canvas, and shining a light on black romance, beauty, and domestic life are just a minuscule amount of themes you’ll find in this massive look at Marshall’s work. By the end of the exhibit you’ll realize that what your mental library of art was missing was a true master.
“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” is on view until Sept. 25 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago located at 220 E. Chicago Ave. For more information visit mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2016/Kerry-James-Marshall.