Monday, March 13, 2017

Blackness in Eversley and Marshall

Kerry James Marshall, A Portrait of the Artist as Shadow of His Former Self, 1980
Two African-American artists with L.A. connections are the subjects of recently opened museum shows. Kerry James Marshall's nationally traveling exhibition has just landed at MOCA Grand Avenue. Last month the Brandeis University's Rose Museum (Waltham, Mass.) opened a show on  Fred Eversley. As different as the artists are, each show pivots on the politics, and phenomenology, of blackness.
Fred Eversley, Untitled, 1974. Photo: Greg Cook, WBUR
Kerry James Marshall's signature motif is black figures rendered very black, as near-silhouettes. His art plays off art history and a history of oppression. In an untitled 2009 work, Marshall depicts a black woman painter holding an outsized palette. She is doing a paint-by-numbers self-portrait. Her palette holds no black paint.
Kerry James Marshall, Untitled, 2009. Yale University Art Gallery
Taken at face value, Eversley's art is the opposite. It is Obama-cool, minimal, and made of plastic—about the least art-historically resonant of materials. Eversley's contemporaries were Helen Pashgian and DeWain Valentine; his signature motif is a polished lens of aerospace polymer.
A rocket scientist of the Hidden Figures generation, Eversley worked for an El Segundo aerospace firm that contracted for the Gemini and Apollo missions. His art career was something of a random walk. Eversley moved to Venice because it was the closest place to work where landlords would rent to blacks. There he fell in with the Ferus-era art scene. He began doing art and took over John Altoon's Frank Gehry-designed studio. "I'm still there. It's still a rental," he told Greg Cook of Boston NPR station WBUR.
The Rose's "Fred Eversley: Black, White, Gray" is just that, a survey of Eversley's work in three non-colors. It's loosely in the spirit of recent shows of gray Jasper Johns and black-and-white Picasso, but it resonates in ways those shows didn't. After Watts, Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy, and David Hammons came to prominence with art about being black. This posed a dilemma that still resounds: Can an American black artist create art not about being black in America?
"There's certainly been criticism of me for not making art that talks about the black experience," Eversley told Cook.
“John McCracken at the time was doing black planks and decided he had made black sculptures long enough and he gave me his can [of black pigment]. McCracken said, ‘You’re being heavily criticized for not making black art. Make some black art.’
John McCracken, Black (PL100155), 1988
It's worth pointing out why (white artist) McCracken gave up on black. After Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), McCracken's black planks reminded people of the sci-fi film's monoliths. It got annoying after a while, and McCracken switched to other colors.
Still from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968
Eversley:
“When [McCracken] gave me that can, I didn’t use it the next day. It sat there for a year. My first [black] piece, I used it because I messed up a casting and I wanted to save the work. But it came out very interesting.
“It’s totally different because it’s no longer transparent. Now you’re dealing with a mirror, with some translucency in the center, but basically a mirror.”

Fred Eversley in 1970
Later, a white studio assistant joked about making some white pieces for white people. Eversley tried it, finding the pearly luminescence interesting. He also made some gray pieces in recognition of his mixed-race heritage.
Installation view of "Fred Eversley: Black, White, Gray." Photo: Greg Cook, WBUR
Kerry James Marshall is not known as an abstractionist, but the MOCA show includes some recent paintings referencing mid-century abstraction. There's a Black Painting that's almost that, and a burlesque of Barnett Newman, Red (If They Come in the Morning). Black and green zips make the red ground into a Pan-African flag. The muted red letters quote James Baldwin's words to Angela Davis.
Kerry James Marshall, Red (If They Come in the Morning), 2011
Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Blot), 2014
Two Rorschach blot-inspired paintings refer to abstract expressionism (as do Warhol's Rorschach blots). The MOCA gallery text notes that black artists of the 1960s vainly hoped that abstraction would be equal-opportunity. 
Eversley's black mirrors are themselves "ink blots," leaving the viewer to decide what they mean. Curators and the art market keep trying to read them as righteous black fists. It's worth keeping in mind that Eversley speaks of his work much as fellow L.A. Fetish Finish artists do. His is an art of perception. Eversley links the black pieces to black holes, the cosmic ultimate of blackness. Those looking for a political spin might posit a connection to Afro-Futurism, whose deadpan thesis is that this planet is so morally compromised that all sensible black folks must look to the stars.
Installation view of "Fred Eversley: Black, White, Gray." Photo: Greg Cook, WBUR

No comments: