KERRY JAMES Marshall messes with your head even before you walk into his provocative new exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Just take a gander at the rather unwieldy title that's been slapped on the show, which includes painting, photography, installation, sculpture and video: "Kerry James Marshall: One True Thing, Meditations on Black Aesthetics." As you will find out upon entering the galleries, however, the artist and 1997 MacArthur "genius" grant winner can hardly limit himself to a discussion of one thing and one thing only. As for truth, that's an even slipperier proposition.
Organized by Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, the touring show is nothing if not "discursive," to use the somewhat euphemistic description of the BMA's curator of contemporary art, Chris Gilbert. In other words, "One True Thing" slides easily from the topic of slavery to multiculturalism to gentrification to the appropriation of black culture by whites to a satirical take on Afrocentrism to . . . well, you get the picture. It is interactive in the truest sense of the word. Although there are no gimmicky buttons and touch screens to press, Marshall's art engages the intellect -- and the eye -- in a direct and uncompromising way. It makes assertions, to be sure, but just as often, it asks questions.
Or rather, it invites you to do that.
By way of example, listen to Gilbert, who was leading a public tour through the exhibition at the time of my visit and who paused in front of Marshall's "Black Painting," a barely legible all-black acrylic-on-fiberglass that depicts -- but only if you look reallly close -- a couple lying in bed: "I personally have a tough time," Gilbert said, "figuring out where to stand in relation to this painting."
On one level, Gilbert was talking about the difficulty of knowing where to stand, quite literally, in the room, in order to be able to see what the painting represents. Because it is rendered in ever-so-slightly graduated shades of black, its subjects (a man and a woman sleeping in a bed, a dresser, artwork on the walls) only become visible as the viewer moves about the gallery to gain the best light. Gilbert's comment also refers figuratively to Marshall's implication that black people endure a kind of invisibility in the larger culture, that images of black people, particularly everyday, boring, domestic scenes that avoid the extremes that find their way in the papers and on television, are hard to find. With its strong conceptual component, Marshall's art invites us to ask ourselves whether we agree with his contention and whether we are willing to make the effort to look harder.
Looking, of course, is only part of the game. Marshall also wants his audience to think, and to that end, he has packed this show with material that must be read. That's true, both in the sense that the artist incorporates text into his work -- fragments of original blues lyrics; panels of comics, complete with speech balloons; plexiglass light boxes emblazoned with fake church names; book titles tucked into the background of a painting -- as well as in the sense that Marshall often leaves his art open-ended. Its interpretation, or reading, is entirely up to you.
Why, for instance, does Marshall choose to frame his paintings with what looks like lumber from Home Depot? In their unpainted state, with visible patches of clumsily applied wood putty, is he making a subtle -- and, since he himself is African American, self-critical -- dig about black craftsmanship or, as the title suggests, "black aesthetics"? Is that also a legitimate reading of his decision to incorporate cheap, dime-store picture frames into "Sixteen Bar Blues," an installation of Polaroids of a dancing woman?
Those certainly wouldn't be the only instances of self-satire. Take a look around, at "Vignette," for example, a painting that pokes fun at the sentimentalized notion of a paradisiacal Africa, from which a very Adam-and-Eve-like black couple (one of whom is sporting an Afrocentric medallion) are fleeing. With its cynical inclusion of non-native birds and a fragment of sidewalk into the middle of a decidedly Midwestern-looking African savannah, it's clear where Marshall comes down on the existence of an idealized African Eden, yet where do you stand on the issue?
Or take Marshall's series of lighted sculptural signs that allude to African American churches. An amalgam of fragments from five actual church names, one reads, "New Greater Love Full Gospel Sweet Home Pentecostal House of Prayer." Is Marshall's obvious amusement at the absurdity derisive or fond?
And is it even okay to laugh?
Of course it is, along with getting angry.
"To be an artist," filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said, "means never to avert one's eyes." Marshall's omnivorous art digests so much stuff (Andrew Wyeth, white rappers, Renoir, Foucault, FUBU, advertising, minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, as well as the polarities of self-loathing and self-love) that it's impossible for a viewer -- white or black -- not to have an allergic reaction to something.
That's the point of Marshall's itchy and insinuating art, which gets under your skin, but leaves the scratching up to you.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: ONE TRUE THING, MEDITATIONS ON BLACK AESTHETICS -- Through Sept. 5 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st streets, Baltimore. 410-396-7100. www.artbma.org. Open Wednesday-Friday 11 to 5; first Thursday of every month until 8; Saturdays and Sundays 11 to 6. $7, seniors and college students $5, 18 and under free; free on the first Thursday of the month.
For a look somewhat beyond Marshall's themes of "black aesthetics" and into his own personal aesthetics, visit the "Baltimore/Chicago Show," a Marshall-curated group exhibition on the campus of the Maryland Institute College of Art. Part of Baltimore's upcoming annual summer Artscape 2004 arts festival (July 16-18), it features the work of six Baltimore artists along with the work of six artists from Marshall's home town of Chicago:
BALTIMORE/CHICAGO SHOW -- Through July 31 at the Decker Gallery of the Maryland Institute College of Art, Mount Royal Station, 1400 Cathedral St., Baltimore. 410-225-2300. www.mica.edu. Open Monday-Saturday 10 to 5; Sundays noon to 5. Free.