Friday, January 20, 2017

Kerry James Marshall Exhibition Could be the Perfect Response to Trump's America

Kerry James Marshall, Vignette, 2003
Defares Collection
("Kerry James Marshall: Mastry"Exhibition at The Met Breuer)
Today is Inauguration Day in America when a man who ran his presidential campaign on a lethal mix of racism, white supremacy, misogyny, and xenophobia is to be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. As disturbing as the election period was, every day since November 8th has been a harrowing experience of watching one horrifying event after another take place as Donald Trump's appointments for his cabinet were revealed and a Republican Senate started working to repeal Obamacare in an overnight marathon that is "the groundwork for 30 million people to be thrown off their health insurance... " resulting in a situation where many of these won't be able to get the medical help they need and will face death, according to Senator Bernie Sanders.

With vibrant butterflies, cardinals and blue birds leading the way on a path of clovers, Marshall's version of an alternative, happier outcome of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from  Paradise
As a response, an act of public accountability and to support and promote civil rights for all humanity people from around the country are organizing events, interventions, marches, a festival of resistance as well as an art strike here in New York City. There is a Women's March on Washington, D.C. on Saturday with over 600 local sister marches all over the country and even vigils by women's organization abroad.  I will be participating in the Women's March in NYC tomorrow but for today, I am particularly interested in the #J20 Art Strike signed by more than 130 artists that is asking for an act of non-compliance on Inauguration Day. The declaration notes:

It is not a strike against art, theater, or any other cultural form. It is an invitation to motivate these activities anew, the reimagine these spaces as places where resistant forms of thinking, seeing, feeling, and acting can be produced.

Memento #5, 2003, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
("Kerry James Marshall: Mastry"Exhibition at The Met Breuer)
An elegy to the Civil Rights movement, depicts an agel closing a glittery, silver curtain, symbolizing the end of a decade of peaceful civil disobedience, courageous marches, visionary speeches, righteous legislation, explosive riots and tragic deaths. President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X are seen on the clouds in the background.   
Some institutions such as the Whitney, New Museum, and Museum of Arts and Design and the Children's Museum of Art are pay-as-you-wish, others including El Museo del Barrio, Rubin Museum, Museum of Chinese in America, and the Museum of Moving Image are free and the Queens Museum is closing to host "Sign of the Times: Sing Making in Solidarity," to create graphic materials to address the causes and concerns of the people of New York City to be used in the marches and actions in the five boroughs and beyond. I have a suggestion to add to the list - to visit the Kerry James Marshall exhibit at the Met Breuer today. 

School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012, Birmingham Museum of Art
("Kerry James Marshall: Mastry"Exhibition at The Met Breuer)
I had never heard of Kerry James Marshall before this exhibit but after seeing this retrospective, he is on my list of favorite American artists. They say success is the best revenge and I think Marshall's work is a testament to this idea. For centuries history painting was always regarded as the highest for of art and being accepted as a history painter was the ultimate sign of an artist's mastery and success. Many artists throughout history composed their paintings like large-scale history paintings, in order to endow them with more significance. The best example of this is probably Gustave Courbet, who, in his paintings, The Stone Breakers and A Burial at Ornan, elevated ordinary people and subjects represented without any idealization to the noble level of history painting.  Similar to Courbet, Marshall uses the language, style and dimensions of the Old Masters from the canon of Western art to paint the African American experience into art history.

The artist's presence behind the flash
of his camera recalling
Velázquez in Las Meninas
Disney's Sleeping Beauty recalls the distorted
skull from Hans Holbein's  The Ambassodors

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's website has a selection of the art that is on view and a great audio guide which should be listened to. I think this is the kind of exhibition that one should go to not just view but stay for a while and contemplate, in regards to the contemporary events of the day.


I love Marshall's Vignette series, based on the late 18th century Roccoco paintings of bucolic scenes of romantic love set in decorative landscapes. Sweet, romantic narrative scenes of black life that avoid the violence and trauma usually associated with the black experience in the United States are painted into the history of American art.

The many layers of meaning embeded within each of Marshall's paintings with their deliberate symbolism and references to well-known, and admired works of art from history are a remarkable combination of an artist's agency to rewrite the history of his own people as well as a commentary on the present condition presented with irony.

Gulf Stream, 2003, Walker Art Center
("Kerry James Marshall: Mastry"Exhibition at The Met Breuer)
Still-Life with Wedding Portrait, 2015
Today is the perfect day to see this thought-provoking exhibition as America enters what has been deemed "The Dark Age of Trump" and we have been invited to combat the normalization of Trumpism by those "who are the first to feel the sun on their foreheads."* The best way to combat the hatred and intolerance that has been suggested by the politicians who came into power today is by making sure there are many more artists who can create, express and find opportunities to display their art like Kerry James Marshall.

* "The artist is the first one to feel the sun on his/her forehead." Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

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