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Laura Washington: Can we live up to a master artist’s vision?

The work of Kerry James Marshall — including "Past Times" from 1997 — is on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

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It’s about blackness. Black culture. Black people. Black celebrations. Black matters, and that is central to the artistry of Kerry James Marshall.

Marshall is a longtime Chicagoan, with an Afro-centric philosophy and abundant talent who has reaped international acclaim. Born in 1955 in Birmingham, Ala., he was raised in Los Angeles, where his family moved in 1963. They lived in Watts, near the Black Panthers’ headquarters.

He later moved to Chicago and creates in his studio in Bronzeville. Marshall is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and a former professor of art at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

OPINION

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Last May, his piece “Plunge,” a vivid depiction of a black bathing beauty edgily poised on a diving board, sold for $2,165,000 at a Christie’s auction in New York City.

His latest show, “Mastry,” is on view at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art until Sept. 25, when it moves on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Marshall offers a brand of blackness on equal footing with the Masters. In the show’s introductory video, Marshall explains:

“If you look at the historical narrative of art, I mean, we do have to contend with this idea of the quote unquote, old masters. And what I had to recognize is that in that pantheon of ‘old masters,’ there are no old black masters.”

My mother is the family artiste. At 82, Gwendolyn Washington is a self-taught designer of fulsome necklaces of turquoise, crystal, millefiori and ancient African trade beads.

My grandmother created elegant paper flowers and ceramics for her church. (The art gene skipped my generation, but at least I get to model mama’s wares).

Last week, I took her to the show. Marshall’s wares are rich, massive canvasses edged in acrylic hues of orange, reds, purples and greens. The canvasses popped with gorgeous black figures, shining black faces with full, black lips, wide black noses, Brillo-Pad black coifs. The blackest of black.

We saw a sleekly royal black couple cavorting through a verdant garden, another in sexy bedroom undress.

We saw black people living black life in barber shops and beauty schools, on boats and dance floors, as strivers and lovers.

What do you think? I asked.

“I like that blackness. I like the blackness,” Gwen Washington replied.

“He uses just the black paint. No brown, no medium, no mulatto. Just the black.”

Unapologetically black.

We paused at the painting, “Past Times.” The 1997 collage shows an idyllic, pastoral setting. A black family all dressed in white, playing croquet and golf. A picnic basket beckons and a radio plays on green grass.

Mama recalled her childhood. For church picnics, the family would trek from Bronzeville, she said, to the Dan Ryan forest preserve on the western edge of the city.

“We used to go every year, and that’s where we had the ice cream,” she mused. “We had to make the ice cream old fashioned way, we had to churn it. We had a radio, and a picnic basket, and the ladies would fry that chicken up.”

She smiled, then, shook her head. “Things were different. No shootings.”

No shootings. Like those in Chicago, those that led to the 80 bloody murders, most of blacks by blacks, in August alone.

In the great museums, we are elevated to mastery.

Can we live up to the promise of the pictures?

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