Last fall's Romare Bearden retrospective at the National Gallery of Art may have been viewed in some quarters as a sign that black art had finally arrived. But a better measure of the current health of African American visual expression is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"Kerry James Marshall: One True Thing, Meditations on Black Aesthetics" is easily one of the most exciting exhibitions of contemporary art to hit the area in years. If the Bearden show too often seemed calculated toward securing a small place for African Americans in the standard art history, Marshall's takes a different tack altogether.
"One True Thing" takes art history by storm, brazenly appropriating whole swaths of it, both black and mainstream, and fashioning them into blunt, unflinching assaults on American culture that display exceptional conceptual refinement. Deadly serious in its intent, it's also light on its feet. In the process of redefining what it means to make race-aware art for the 21st century, Marshall puts a sardonically political spin on the idea of black comedy.
Marshall, a 1997 recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, is a University of Illinois, Chicago professor best known as a painter. When Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art approached him with the offer of a mid-career retrospective, he proposed instead an ambitious installation of new work unrestricted by medium. "One True Thing" is a sprawling multimedia melange.
To be sure, there are plenty of canvases, including one, "Memento #5," that harks back to Marshall's earlier focus on the turbulent '60s. As visages of civil-rights heroes float in the background, a middle-aged woman draws the curtain on an era. Her hands grip lengths of the sparkly fabric as though they were prison bars.
In "SOB, SOB," a sorrowful, angry young woman curls up on the floor next to a bookcase of black classics. In front of her is a volume titled "Africa since 1413." Though she faces us, her posture mirrors that of the lame woman dragging herself up the hillside in Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World."
Marshall, who was born in 1955, is a scholar of black history, but he cautions against being confined or crippled by it. Accepting the label "radical pragmatist," and claiming to be "only interested in what works," he is acutely aware of the need to recognize and work clear of political failures, past and present.
"Diptych (Color Blind Test)," which crosses color-reduced versions of Marcus Garvey's red, green and black African flag with the circle-filled images used to test for visual colorblindness, is certainly a repudiation of the conservative ideal of a so-called colorblind society. But Marshall's critique cuts deeper than that. In medallions at the center of the flags a pair of young radicals -- he wearing an Afro, she with hair straightened and flipped -- give clenched-fist salutes. What once was the very height of urgency now seems comically quaint. Despite the recent resurgence of '70s styles, Marshall counsels that black power can't mean Black Power anymore.
In "Vignette," the back-to-Africa movement is exposed by conflating its wishful naivete with the style of "naive" painters such as Henri Rousseau and Edward Hicks. A couple romps naked through a grassy paradise, an anachronistically Afrocentric pendant swinging from his neck. But their poses recall the traditional subject of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden: paradise denied.
Marshall is likewise skeptical of the promises and power of the black church. An untitled series of light boxes is emblazoned with ridiculous verbal hashes made by recombining the actual names of houses of worship: The New Rock of Ages Way of Holiness Steadfast Faith Temple, New Greater Love Full Gospel Sweet Home Pentecostal Anointed House of Prayer, etc. The implication is that nothing washes down the crumb of communion bread caught in your throat like a little snake oil.
Marshall requires of his viewers a high degree of cultural literacy -- black and white, popular and official. However much you might pride yourself on being able to swim the turbulent currents of contemporary America, you always suspect he's thrown you in waters you can't quite navigate. One of three tarry, cubistic sculptures of the African continent placed throughout the show is emblazoned with names of white pop stars who got where they did on the backs of black musicians. There's Paul Simon, who revitalized his career by assimilating the sounds of South Africa; Eminem, who wouldn't be every mother's nightmare without the tutelage of Dr. Dre; and Pat Boone, who made bank by waxing prissy covers of the R&B hits white radio wouldn't play.
But what to make of Kurt Cobain? It could be a pun: Nirvana's biggest influences were Black Sabbath and the Pixies, whose frontman went by the name Black Francis. Or it could be a macabre reference to Johnny Ace, who preceded Cobain in shooting himself at the height of fame.
If there's a single piece that encapsulates Marshall's themes, it's "The Ladder of Success," a series of color-coded, wall-mounted Plexiglas boxes reminiscent of the minimalism of Donald Judd, each engraved with the name of a vital moral precept. The lower rungs are drawn from a didactic 19th-century lithograph. The higher ones are the principles of Kwanzaa. As the tower rises toward the ceiling, the size of the "steps" decreases; there isn't much room at the top. On the uppermost box is the Victorian grail of "INDUSTRY." Known for his strict work ethic, Marshall isn't recommending slacking off, but he wonders whether new behavioral codes aren't merely recastings of the master's words. High on the wall, an accompanying photo nocturne glows with two neon signs. On one side are the offices of the celebrity-obsessed Jet and Ebony magazines; on the other is what we assume to be some fleabag hotel. Part of the sign is burned out, but we can almost read the Anglo-monikered "Essex Inn." Surely there must be other choices. The implication: build your own ladder.
I'd advise visiting the BMA by Aug. 8, the closing date of "Celebration and Vision: The Hewitt Collection of African American Art." The changing of the guard in black art is ably put into perspective by the drastic contrast between the two shows.
For all the bright colors and good intentions in paintings by mid-century artists such as Ernest Crichlow and J. Eugene Grigsby, "Celebration and Vision" is drab and downtrodden, its few forgettable rooms filled with an air of pleading. In contrast, the best recent black art -- think not only of Marshall but also of Kara Walker, David Hammons and William Pope.L -- speaks loudly, with rage and wit. It positively defies ignoring.
At an opening-day panel discussion at the museum, Marshall observed that though it would be impossible to write the history of 20th-century music without giving African Americans a leading role, the same is not true for the equivalent story of the development of visual art. Participation of blacks in the narrative is viewed as optional.
Rather than simply bemoan the fact of institutionalized racism, make excuses or rely exclusively on insular African American art circles to advance his career, Marshall, as with others who established themselves in the '80s and '90s, has taken the situation as an artistic challenge. Given the evidence of "One True Thing," he's met it.
Kerry James Marshall: One True Thing, Meditations on Black Aesthetics is at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Dr., through Sept. 5. The museum is open Wednesday-Friday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (8 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month, when admission is free), Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. For information, call 410-396-7100.