"Kerry James Marshall: Mementos," Sept. 11-Nov. 29, 1998, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11238.
If the current political climate were not more in need of Jack Kevorkian than health-care reform, then maybe the Brooklyn Museum of Art's fall opener, entitled "Mementos," would garner the kind of third-eye focus a show of this type deserves.
The BMA's hosting of a show by Marshall, the brilliantly cool painter from Chicago of opulent homespun vernacular, alive and of boomer age (43), is in itself a hallmark compared to what's on at the other major New York museum venues. The Guggenheim's motorcycle extravaganza made for a social consumer discourse about vehicular fetishism that has by far out-gunned the more sensitive art-mongers like Pierre Bonnard at the Modern and Mark Rothko at the Whitney.
Might we take nourishment from the long look at newer majors in the outer boroughs? Oui.
Marshall's installation addresses the heroic dead political icon and the provocative slogans that set the '60s apart. Martin Luther King, the dead Kennedy brothers, "burn baby burn," combine with a large cast that includes portrait paintings of black boy scouts and girl scouts that make up an odd memorial, or is it a memoir?
It was only the last Whitney Biennial (1997) that introduced Kerry James Marshall's large-scale unstretched canvases -- Matisse morphed through the hope and struggle of the asphalt black ghetto -- to the kind of big cosmo New York City audience the Biennial attracts.
His mesmerizing painting of L.A.'s Watts district, entitled Our Town, has a nervy complex of a narrative. Against a tree-lined landscape of clean white houses, a young boy rides a bike, a young girl runs beside him, a smiley dog follows along and a woman (Momma?) waves good-bye. It's all painted with a gritty blend of perspective and collaged abstract grids, a kind of orange-crate-label folk-art tantra Jan Brueghel the Elder on Avid.
It appears that the Biennial was just the first chapter of material success for the artist. Good painting and good karma delivered a MacArthur genius grant, a Herb Alpert award and a show in Documenta X to the mid-career Kerry James Marshall.
The "Mementos" installation is an invocation of the civil rights and black-power movement that the artist literally grew up right in the middle of. It is a nostalgic period now, primarily championed by designers of bell-bottoms and Volkswagens. The sound-bites from those crazy days were cool and scary -- "By any means necessary" and "We shall overcome." Out of this Marshall creates jumbo rubber-stamp serigraphs that hang on the wall with unfettered simplicity.
The paintings of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys have a souvenir ceramic plate style, but the paintings are good paintings, not pathetic collectibles.
The show also gets down into personal testimonial territory that borders on religious iconography. The portraits of boy scouts and girl scouts are endowed with shimmering sunburst auras and the Mommas are given angel wings. Larger paintings put Renaissance-style figures in '60s middle class living rooms.
These are idealized memoirs with strong symbolic content. The names of African American intellectuals float in thought balloons in the artist's "History Paintings" series. Throw in a video installation entitled Laid to Rest and it all becomes a very interesting concoction -- heavy, sweet, sentimental at times, but authentically passionate.
As an experiment in installation, "Mementos" contains real concerns about our society and how African Americans have moved through the last 30 years. What happens when a virtuoso contemporary painter combines all these esthetic and historic compounds in a single installation?
If sincerity is the fuel then it packs horsepower but the destination is a fork in the road. The Black Power slogans as rubber stamps have edge but the "History Paintings" cover it with fluff, with the scout troop lost in the backyard. In spite of its all-inclusive-plus-video nature, the show's personal reverence for contemporary American ideals that art generally takes for granted is plain to see, if you go to see it. So go see it.
PAUL HASEGAWA-OVERACKER is producer of Art TV Gallery Beat.