CHICAGO -- Kerry James Marshall is most known for his monumental narrative paintings, often showing black Americans keeping vigil over memories of the civil rights movement and the legacies of its heroes.
But in the Museum of Contemporary Art's new exhibit, "Kerry James Marshall: One True Thing, Meditations on Black Aesthetics," just one painting follows that theme.
In "Memento Á5," a black angel stands in a tidy living room as the winged images of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X float in clouds above the word "Remember." The angel peeks from behind a silver curtain - perhaps closing the curtain on both the civil rights movement, and on Marshall's paintings of this type?
The exhibit was originally conceived as a mid-career retrospective for Marshall, 48, who is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But the 1997 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant" wasn't interested in looking back.
Instead, as MCA's chief curator Elizabeth Smith writes in the catalog that accompanies the show, Marshall proposed "to create new works around a particular theme, one that would allow him to put his latest thinking about the representation of African-American subjects into practice."
The result is an exhibit that features works in sculpture, painting, installation, photography, video and printmaking, all created in the last five years and touching on black history, identity and cultural tradition.
The "black aesthetics" in the title refers to a term that emerged in the 1960s as part of an effort to create standards for music and literature from a black perspective as opposed to the Western tradition. In many works in the show, Marshall addresses the question of integration versus assimilation.
In several paintings, Marshall toys with the notion of the color blind test given by eye doctors. In two works, the dots are red, black and green - the colors of the African flag created by Marcus Garvey - and reveal the image of a man and a woman raising their fist in a "black power" gesture.
"Garden Party" recalls impressionist works, but instead of featuring a riverside picnic like Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party," Marshall's painting is set in a flower-filled urban backyard and populated with black, Asian and Hispanic women.
The installation "The Ladder of Success" consists of Plexiglas boxes featuring a list of both the virtues that were believed to lead to fortune in 19th-century America - including honesty, morality and punctuality - and the principles of the African-American celebration of Kwanzaa, such as creativity and faith.
In the most disturbing piece, Marshall has greatly enlarged a photograph of a 1930 lynching of two black men in Marion, Ind. He isolates three women in the crowd, who were all looking at the camera, and frames their faces with golden lockets. In a nod to Marshall's commentary on the complicity of the crowd and the legacy of racism, the piece is called "Heirlooms and Accessories."
One of the more personal installations - at least for those who know Marshall's history - is the use of a large flower-filled cross to replicate an image of a television broadcast from the funeral of four black girls who were killed in a bombing at Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963.
Marshall was born in Birmingham in 1955 and his family moved away just weeks before the bombing. They settled in the Watts section of Los Angeles, two years before riots engulfed the area.
He has often touched on the significance of geography in his life and work.
"You can't be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and not feel like you've got some kind of social responsibility. You can't move to Watts in '63 and grow up in South Central near the Black Panthers headquarters and see the kinds of things I saw in my developmental years and not speak about it," he said in a 1998 magazine interview.
Despite the presence of two videos, several sculptures, a comic strip and many photographs, the most affecting pieces in the exhibit are still Marshall's paintings. The massive "Black Painting" - which Marshall has said was inspired by Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" - at first looks to be, well, a canvas painted black. But Marshall has used texture and varying shades of black so that the longer the viewer looks at the picture and shifts his viewpoint, the more comes into focus - a dresser, a pair of shoes on the floor, a figure in bed.
"The world I see is filtered through black-culture lenses," Marshall is quoted as saying in the catalog. "I can't not make work from a black perspective, even if I wanted to."
After the exhibit closes at the MCA on Jan. 18, it is scheduled to travel to the Miami Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama.
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