Artist Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham Alabama in 1955 and moved to Los Angeles in the 1960’s. In an interview with Holland Cotter for the New York Times in October 2016, Mr. Marshall said his artistic motivation throughout his career has been to paint black life “in the grand style.”
“Mastry,” a 35-year retrospective of this extraordinary painter’s work, co-organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago, is on view at MOCA through July 3, 2017. It’s a must-see exhibit of a masterful American painter telling powerful and profound stories of black life and history in America.
Music is often at the heart of Marshall’s storytelling and in some of his paintings lyrics and musical notes float on the canvas as if they will be heard more than seen. Marshall’s musical connection inspired MCA to put together a “Kerry James Marshall Playlist” when the exhibit was on view in Chicago last year. One of the songs on that playlist is Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” from the concept album of the same name released in 1971. Produced and performed by the legendary soul singer, What’s Going On questioned the state of the union marked by political unrest, racial tensions, drug abuse, and poverty as the country struggled to bring the Vietnam War to an end. Marvin Gaye expressed his vision in his own words during an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, “In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say … I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”
This week’s Listen Up video was created by People’s Music for the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles (just a few blocks from MOCA) and features “What’s Going On” accompanied by news footage and interviews that give historical context to this period of turmoil in America. It’s hard to believe that it was nearly a half century ago.
Images above are details from paintings by Kerry James Marshall, “Memento 5” (header) and “De Style” (listen up)
After a meeting in downtown Los Angeles, we were headed for lunch past the lines outside the Broad and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). Gotta love a town where people queue up for modern art on a weekday. Considering that it had been more than a year since we last visited, we decided lunch could wait – we needed a MOCA fix. The current exhibit “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” (on view through July 3, 2017) was unknown to us so we entered with no expectations. Once inside, assumptions filled my mind as I entered the first gallery of large, powerful paintings about the African-American experience in America. Standing before the first painting, De Style, my thoughts ran to, “Wow, this young artist is incredible. Why have I never heard of him? I’m going to take this slow and savor every image, because I know it’s going to end too soon, and I want to remember every brushstroke.”
But a few of those speculations were way off base. This 35-year retrospective of Kerry James Marshall, a 61-year old artist who currently lives in Chicago, is as expansive as it is exciting. More than 80 paintings, sculptures, video and multi-media installations are on display, and it is by witnessing the consistent brilliance of Marshall’s breadth of work that each individual piece becomes monumental. Born in Alabama and raised in South Central Los Angeles, his art is influenced by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, but conveys a broader history telling stories that resonate today. If you are in Los Angeles over the next few months, do not miss the “Mastry” exhibit at MOCA. It is evocative, memorable, important and, according to the MacArthur Foundation, an unusual opportunity to see a body of work by a living genius.
After a few hours at MOCA, it was time to address the growling of our stomachs. Fortunately, right outside the museum entrance, the little outdoor cafe, Lemonade, has a terrific selection of salads and sandwiches, and, of course, a variety of lemonades. Enjoying a fantastic exhibit followed by a fresh roasted turkey BLT just when I needed it – it doesn’t get any better than that. Unless you add in glamorous people watching under the warm Southern California sun. I’ll say it again, gotta love that town.
Two years ago, Elizabeth and I were on a whirlwind tour of art museums in the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia — the Rodin Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Ruth and Raymond Perelman Building and the Barnes Foundation. Lucky for us, on the evening we visited the Barnes fashion designer Walé Oyéjidé, a former lawyer from Nigeria, was having a trunk show of his menswear collection, “Of Saints and Savages.” This was the first time I had seen the work of his company, Ikiré Jones, and it was my first exposure to African prints interpreted in a contemporary collection by an African designer. In my twenty years as a designer, there were seasons where African-related ideas – textiles, color palettes, beading, embroidery, and photos of the African veldt and its people were often represented on fashion trend boards and advertising campaigns, but I can’t remember a past emphasis on African-born fashion designers and their specific insights into and extensions of their own cultures into modern silhouettes. It was a breath of fresh air.
This year, Africa as a trend has hit the runways, especially in the high end Eurocentric houses of Balmain, Valentino, Prada, Schiaparelli, Moschino, Armani, and Stella Jones, a former protégé of Armani. The workmanship is beautiful and the attention to detail is amazing. Their interpretations of African design and craft often refine the indigenous modes, while showing great respect for the culture. (It was fantastic to discover Stella Jones – now I’m a big fan!) But in the process of researching the trend I also discovered some incredible African-born designers who are gaining international attention. Their brands were all new to me and it’s exciting to now have them on my radar. (And I enjoyed sharing their talent with you on last Wednesday’s trend report “De la mode Africaine.”)
There are so many ways to include African-inspired fashion in your personal style for 2017. Fair Trade jewelry, belts and bags can be an inexpensive way to add exquisite African beadwork to your wardrobe while supporting crafts people in villages throughout the continent. Authentic prints known as African wax block prints, 100% cotton mud cloth or bogolan cloth will be well stocked in both men’s and women’s sportswear this year. And keep a lookout for one of my all-time favorite fabrics: indigo cloth that is either plain or stitch resist. This cloth is often made from strips that are stitched together, then hand-dyed. Reminiscent of Japanese shibori, African indigo cloth will be a great counterpoint to your existing denim wardrobe.