One particular 1995 painting by Kerry James Marshall seems to be, but is not quite, utopian. It shows a swath of grass and trees around houses that evoke America’s early, faith-based settlements, and there are kids bicycling and running while a dog chases along, but blotches of paint mar the vista down a curving road and the houses are too large and too isolated to present a vision of single family bliss. Not only that, but most shocking of all, the children are African-American. “Our Town,” Marshall wrote on this canvas, but what kind of town is it? One in which those who were written out of this country’s early history can find themselves at home? Or is it place whose dreams of peaceful existence in nature are marred by bad design and decay and in which colonial mansions have become jam-packed apartment buildings? Is the paint Marshall slung with such seeming willfulness over the grass and trees his attempt to tell us what is wrong and, if so, why are the squares he has doodled on the grass blank and without a message? The boy on the bicycle looks back at the girl running along; she produces a thought bubble, but there is nothing to read there. The dog seems to be snarling. All is not well in this planned paradise.
Our Town is part of a suite of paintings Marshall produced during the mid-1990s that sits at the heart of the exhibition of his work, "Kerry James Marshall: Mastry," which opens on Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, following stints at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Met Breuer in New York. The four key canvases present images of housing projects in Los Angeles, where the artist was born, and in Chicago, where he has lived, worked, and taught for most of his life. These are images of a postwar building boom that relegated African-Americans to projects that were meant to offer an alternative to the slums in which many immigrants from the South found themselves living. Instead, these housing projects turned into holding pens for millions who, because of the color of their skin, found themselves excluded from the suburbs to which many white Americans fled during this same period.
Marshall paints these scenes with both affection and dread, producing a biting satire that both eats into and drips off the surface of the images. Nickerson Gardens in Los Angeles—the subject of Marshall's Watts, 1963 (1995)—abounds in green and flowers while the modern houses surround the central space, but splotches of paint obscure and comment on the idyll Marshall presents. The inhabitants are children who look at us with fear or apprehension. One of them lies curled up on his surfboard-shaped shadow, his eyes wide open and staring directly at us.
Almost all of the housing projects that Marshall depicts are gone now, torn down to make way for townhouses that mimic the brownstones to which those modern blocks were meant to be a light and airy alternative. Marshall’s paintings are, in the tradition of landscape paintings, memorials to a lost Arcadia that was also a place of terror, containment, and isolation. Those flecks of paints and blotches of white are not mistakes, but patterns of resistance and a calligraphy of despair, and at the same time, moments of a more abstract beauty.
That abstraction becomes even more evident in paintings such as Sunday Morning, 7 am (2003), which evokes the stillness of the real Chicago: the one of commerce, industry, and living that built up its own framework and vision of forms both minimal and efficient. On the left side of the painting, an apartment block and a gridded office tower rise up over the brick wall of a liquor store, but to the right the painting dissolves into hexagonal prisms. These shapes are the sun—painted as a small, white disc—and its refractions, but they also take what is already an empty landscape under a light gray sky and turn it into something even more ethereal.
Inside such exterior scenes, which is where Marshall takes us more often than not, is a completely different world. Filled with color and shapes that hustle for our attention, it is the place of his atelier, of the bedroom and the living room, and of the community gathering in places like bars and beauty parlors. Here a world that is full of life, posing itself self-consciously, and confronts us with its blackness and the fullness of its culture. Marshall’s figures are as defiantly as deep-black in their skin as the subject of most historical paintings are delicately white. Beauty is more than skin deep: it is also the subjects’ clothes and the ways in which spaces such as School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012) or the much earlier Could This Be Love (1992) are decorated that proclaim a culture of high-affect colors and shapes that defy perspective’s and hierarchy’s control mechanisms. Here Marshall does not scratch, blotch, or obscure (only the candles’ dripping wax and the wallpaper’s faded flowers seduce him into paint drips in Could This Be Love). He places the paint with precision.
First and foremost, to walk through the Kerry James Marshall exhibition is to encounter the work of a great painter who shows the possibility of the medium, rooted in traditions that are both fruitful and painful, as it confronts and assimilates new forms and extends across cultures. It is also to confront a world that is familiar, yet also confront others who did not share Marshall’s youth and do not have his skin color. We recognize the ideals, both of architecture and of painting, and the reality of places that do not live up to the dreams inherent in their making. We see something that looks like home, like our collective landscape, and like us, but different, not ours, out there. Look, admire, be disturbed, and be not at home in Marshall’s mastery.
"Kerry James Marshall: Mastry" runs March 12th through July 2nd at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.