Mario Moore | A Student's Dream by Wayne Northcross

David Klein Gallery
Jun 27, 2018 3:15PM

In contemporary art, portraits of black men by black artists are rare, their inner lives hidden, their subjectivity overshadowed by the realities of race in America. A few notable exhibitions have changed that. In 1994, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Thelma Golden curated Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. This explosive exhibition explored the social and cultural history of the black male body in contemporary art and media after the Civil Rights era. Since that time, artists like Lorna Simpson, Barkley Hendricks, and Glenn Ligon have opened up the idea of blackness or black identity, exposing the viewer and the public to a black body contextualized not only by race and history but also by sexuality, gender and class.

Mario Moore, Not Your Landscape, Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 inches. SOLD  View e-catalogue

Mario Moore is an heir to the legacy of Black Male, and one of its most dynamic, young standard-bearers. With a painting practice based in figurative realism, Moore teases out complex and psychological transactions between himself in the positions of artist, subject and viewer through contemporary interpretations of black male identity and the history of Western painting. His new exhibition, Recovery, at the David Klein Gallery in Detroit, explores the idea of the black male body at rest.  Moore paints in oil, both on canvas and on small copper panels. In addition, he has chosen the centuries old technique of silverpoint drawing to render images of himself, friends, and culturally important African-American figures. Early in his career, Moore depicted black men like himself as creative, renaissance souls with a whiff of vulnerability, tenderness, and beauty. Now he turns his attention to the idea of black men recovering from experiences of physical and mental trauma, on the cusp of joy and pain, happiness and distress.

It is often said that art is borne of pain or that an artist should suffer exquisitely for their art. Recovery can be read as a pictorial diary of the year 2017 when Moore suffered a seizure and underwent brain surgery to remove a non-malignant tumor. He was forced into a state of rest and recovery which ultimately served as a creative wellspring. The physical stasis he experienced led him to reflect on how black men are not traditionally shown as men of leisure but only as the men of action we know well from the worlds of entertainment, sports, and politics.

Mario Moore, Can't The New Negro Relax - 2017, Silverpoint on prepared paper, 36 x 61 inches  View e-catalogue here

Recently, the artist shared a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. with me. King was in a silk dressing gown in a pose and manner reminiscent of Noël Coward attending a literary salon. Another compelling image depicts James Baldwin sitting on a terrace with legs outstretched enjoying a day in the sun. Inspired by these scenes of aesthetic grace and serenity, Moore rightly wonders why the black body seen or glimpsed at rest is a novel representation. His series of small silverpoint drawings, including images of Muhammed Ali (Rest: Butterfly), and the 1968 Olympic runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos (Rest:1968 Tommie Smith and John Carlos),further illustrate the artist’s concerns.

Moore employs the mystery and symbolism of allegory and the psychological drama of self-representation to achieve his luminous and large-scale painting, A Student’s Dream. Having placed himself, staring out at the viewer, in a medical theater under the glare of a spotlight and the ministrations of three physicians, Moore throws into high relief the multitude of violations visited upon black men. The sleeping American bulldog lying underneath the table is included as a symbol of American blindness, heightening the viewer’s perception that the inner soul of black men is of little concern.

Further exploration into the subject of recovery and leisure includes the enigmatic self-portrait Can’t the New Negro Relax. Here we find the artist spread out on a couch below an image of boxing legend Jack Johnson. For Moore, this juxtaposition of himself supine and an important African-American man with muscular arms outstretched above him speaks to a cultural bias in which the hypermasculine power black athletes possess seems incompatible with vulnerability. However, he notes that in Western painting, and specifically in Impressionism, a recumbent form or a reclining pose celebrated in paintings likes Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, communicated important social cues about status, wealth and identity to which the growing white European middle class aspired.

Mario Moore, Rest: Dream - 2017, Silverpoint on prepared paper, 12 x 9 inches

At the same time, in a traditionalist or hypermasculine worldview which demands that a man should be upright on his feet, ready to run, fight, and conquer, an image of the male body at rest can be a troublesome proposition.  Not Your Landscape, a self-portrait in a verdant lakeside scene depicts the artist reclining on a rustic chaise lounge. With this image and others in the exhibition Moore argues for a more nuanced view of masculinity in general and of the black male body in particular. Recovery is the emergence of a new black pastoral in which rest is recuperative as well as ennobling.

Wayne Northcross was born in Detroit, Michigan. As a journalist, he has produced features on art and fashion for such publications as Observer, Un-Titled Project, Vogue Hommes, and Esquire. Northcross has been on staff and consulted for several contemporary New York galleries including Third Streaming and Lehmann Maupin. Currently, Wayne works in Development and Membership at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD).

David Klein Gallery