Motley mixed Color, Characters, Concerns about Race and Representation

At the Whitney Museum, through January 17:

“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” 

Before Robert Colescott (1925-2009) was creating his satirical, caricature-like black folk (especially), white folk, and assorted, imaginary racially-mixed beings,  there was Chicago-based painter, Motley (1891-1981), who took kaleidoscope color to all sorts of literal and metaphorical extremes in paint.  His jaunty Bronzeville and Parisian street scenes, cafes, and billiard halls, which  merge into broader thematic meditations on “modern” social life largely revolving around African American jazz, gain rhythmic momentum en masse.  (Motley commented on occasion, as one label points out, that he didn’t feel his art had much to do with his Chi-town, per se.)  And the ambiguous, much-discussed exaggeration of facial features that pops up across this extended urban subject matter remains emotionally and artistically provocative.  It should be noted also, since Motley’s works generally reproduce well, that the delicate but deliberate facture perceived in a first-hand viewing adds a palpable warmth to much of the oeuvre.

The subtle anatomical distortions, along with a tendency towards slightly soft-edged and animated forms, comprise Motley’s signature brand of blended Regionalism and Social Realism, both prominent in America for the first half of the 20th century.  Like other painters associated with these umbrella terms, his figuration shows consideration of late Cubist and other abstract, as well as Surrealist, directions.  Especially the latter is suggested in a few experimental monochromatic works featuring dreamy pastel-ish environments and evaporating figures.  (See Floor 2 of the permanent collection, which has a newly integrated [in several senses] installation of artists of the era that facilitates insights regarding their overlapping concerns and unique stylistic flourishes; e.g., Thomas Hart Benton, George Bellows, William Henry Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, among others).

Motley’s several portraits of his mother, his (white) wife, and those of a number of other women, emphasize age, class, and skin tone–the latter reiterated in some of their titles, which bear on mainstream (white; official)  nomenclature of race in America into the postwar years.  They can convey both distanced, ethnographic-type visual scrutiny and self-searching, empathetic poignancy.  Two self-portraits done about a decade apart, one with a quirky array of objects and one of his nude paintings adding explicit iconography, are engaging for their carefully plotted presentation that both reveals and conceals something of the inner artist.

A late tour-de-force, the mnemonic, First One Hundred Years (1972) is a sudden, stark indictment of the violent and plodding pace of racial equality in the United States. This nightmarish faux-collage bulletin board of racism and resistance woven through a deep blues environment lingers long after leaving the exhibition and seems to answer lingering questions about Motley’s earlier artistic motives, life experience and intentions.


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