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Monday, November 11, 2013

Black artists' art grows at National Gallery of Art

Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955), Great America, 1994, National Gallery of Art, Washington

One month remains to see a spectacular modern show at the National Gallery of Art.

In the tower at the East Building are ten colorful, provocative paintings and more than 20 works on paper, drawn by one of "the finest painters of our time," said a sponsor.

Kerry James Marshall at the opening of his show at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  Behind him is Our Town, 1995, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR 

Kerry James Marshall, 58, a Birmingham, Alabama native and MacArthur "Genius" grant recipient, spent part of his growing-up years in Watts in Los Angeles which dramatically influenced his art.  When he was a fifth grader, he probably was the only student who decorated his notebook with decals of Gauguin paintings, he said at the opening of the Washington exhibition.

His works at the National Gallery are big and bold, complex, and full of mystery. They represent his first solo show in Washington, and, according to art critic Tyler Green, it's the first show of a living African-American artist organized by the Gallery.

Earl A. Powell III, the Gallery's director, said one of the primary goals at the institution is to strengthen its collection of works by African-Americans which now numbers more than 150 pieces.

Mr. Marshall said the purpose in his pictures is to show "what it means to be a black person" in the U.S. and "how we see ourselves."  He tries "to make art about things that matter" and "confronts the American Dream from a black perspective." The Gallery's curator of the show, James Meyer, associate curator of modern art, calls Mr. Marshall's works "history paintings."

Kerry James Marshall, left, and NGA's James Meyer at the opening of the Marshall show.  Behind them is Gulf Stream, 2003, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis/Patricia Leslie

On a recent Kojo Nnamdi show on WAMU with Mr. Green, Mr. Marshall said he inserts black figures in typically American scenes to make viewers aware of the exclusion of African-Americans from much of the nation's history.  

If he intends to heighten awareness of the omission of blacks from common American images and themes, Mr. Marshall succeeds, but the show is more than civil rights and exclusions. 

His figures are flat black, without any shading, skin tone variation, or much facial expression, other than solemnity and a hint of fear in some. Haunting eyes help make the subjects appear doll-like and unreal, sometimes planted like foreign objects which don't belong in scenes which are often ambiguous and provoking, like the woman in a neighborhood in Our Town (1995) who waves from a distance to two black children clamoring to play or get away? 

Is she the children's mother calling out to them?  Or a domestic?  The sun sets in a brightly lighted sky, but over to the right partially hidden behind the trees is a huge fireball.  Things to come?  The label asks:  "Is 'our town' their town?"  Suggestions of slave cabins stand to the left of the house.

The Marshall presentation stems from the Gallery's purchase in 2011 of his Great America (1994) which forms the nucleus of the exhibition.  A brief glance renders the piece as commentary on an American summer pastime:  Two couples ride a boat in an amusement park, but a longer look reveals unsettling components: ghosts in the tunnel of love and a man bobbing in the water.  Are those monsters in the sea?  Another ghost, this one, bigger and veiled, consumes almost half the work.  Do you see it?  Mr. Marshall says the painting represents the Rite of Middle Passage for blacks, traveling from Africa to America, Great America.  The bigger ghost is not as apparent, but it is very real.  Incredible.

Mr. Marshall often uses water in his art which he describes in the show's brochure, as "locus of the trauma" experienced by blacks coming from Africa to America.  Water represents the children hosed by firemen in Birmingham in 1963, he says.

Kerry James Marshall (b.1955), Bang, 1994, The Progressive Art Collection/The Progressive Corp., Mayfield Village, OH

In Bang (1994), a garden hose become a black snake encircling a girl while smoke escaping from a grill looks eerily like a writhing serpent getting ready to strike.

"Happy July 4" is strung in pink clouds at the bottom while a banner interwoven between the words says: "We are One." What is the white ladder along the right side extending up from a white box?  "This way out"?

The more you investigate, the more you find.

Mr. Marshall's works not only depict loss of participation and inclusion, but they serve as lessons in American history, too.  Come and see what you can find.  The paintings represent huge puzzles children will find intriguing, as well.

Dr. Anita Blanchard (above) and her husband, Martin Nesbitt, with Cari and Michael Sacks are major sponsors of the Marshall show.  Dr. Blanchard is the doctor who delivered President and Mrs. Obama's two daughters, Malia and Sasha/Patricia Leslie

What: In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall

When: Now through December 8, 2013, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sunday. 

Where: The Tower, East Building, National Gallery of Art, between Third and Ninth streets at Constitution Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. On the Mall.

Admission: No charge

Metro stations: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Navy Memorial-Archives, or L'Enfant Plaza

For more information: 202-737-4215

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