“In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall” At National Gallery of Art to Dec. 7 Thorny, colorful, and clever works abound in the National Gallery's first exhibit for a living black artist.

Kerry James Marshall, “Our Town” (1995)

Somehow, the National Gallery of Art has managed to throw together a Fourth of July celebration that’s not just about dead white dudes. For “In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall,” Associate Curator James Meyer highlights the museum’s 2011 acquisition of the Alabama-born and Chicago-based artist’s “Great America” (1994). The painting, depicting black men and women on an amusement park boat ride, entering a tunnel haunted by white hooded figures, is paired with nine additional acrylic and collage pieces and 22 related works on paper.

Despite its modest size, the exhibit is a big deal for at least two reasons.

The first is the work itself: Each of the 10 paintings packs a wallop. Throughout his oeuvre, Marshall interrogates the displacement, marginalization, and alienation inherent in the African-American experience via a mashup of old master, folk art, and cartoon kitsch imagery. The artist demonstrates total control of his materials and of art historical code-switching; as a result, even a small grouping of his works demands and rewards sustained attention.

The second reason has to do with the museum’s poor track record showing works by black artists. Yes, there was that 2008 retrospective for D.C.-born sculptor Martin Puryear—which traveled to the NGA from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But as art blogger Tyler Green first pointed out, “Kerry James Marshall” is the first show that the NGA has ever organized for a living black artist.

To an extent, Marshall is a safe choice for this historic, belated first. His paintings are representational, colorful, and offer clever nods and winks to art history.

Yet his work is undeniably thorny and tough. Take the 1995 work “Our Town”: In this piece, a young black boy and girl play in a suburban cul-de-sac. A picture-postcard sunrise fills the sky with bands of golden light; overhead, four bluebirds carry yellow ribbons in their beaks. Yet all is not well: Aside from one large building with striking blue shutters, all of the white clapboard houses in this neighborhood lack windows or doors—suggesting a prison camp or a similar institution.As with all African-American figures in Marshall’s paintings, the children’s skin is rendered in startling, unreal shades of grey and coal black; their facial features are limned with delicate white lines. A dog running alongside them appears blurred, captured midstride, but the kids look static. The girl, wearing a school uniform, glares directly at the viewer and raises a black-power fist.

Marshall’s canvases are not attached to stretcher bars but instead screwed directly to the wall with grommets. Each painting is actually an irregular grid of paper pieces, all glued to the canvas, then painted over—resulting in broken-up surfaces with rough borders. Negative space and figurative elements push and pull against one another; passages of careful illustrational rendering are juxtaposed with broad expressionist brush strokes. All of these curious decisions coalesce into images that appear cohesive, yet splinter apart to suggest multiple time periods, disparate sources, and competing narratives.

Marshall’s best paintings embody the artist’s own troubled relationship with his chosen discipline, the country in which he was born and raised, and the still unfinished business of the civil rights movement. Ultimately, the pervasive mood of uneasiness in “Kerry James Marshall” is entirely appropriate at the NGA—yet another American institution that after decades of regarding him as invisible now offers some sort of inclusion.

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