The Ethereal Nature of Symbols
I recently found myself in Kansas City, a very cool town by any account, and one made cooler by the fact that my sister lives there. While most of my trip involved hanging out at her house, I did make a point to visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which has a very nice collection, and the added benefit of being free to the public.
There is a piece in the Nelson that stops me dead in my tracks every time I see it–Memento #5 by Kerry James Marshall. Part of the amazing power of this painting is its size, it’s 9’x13′ of unstretched canvas. Part of it is the shiny factor, the little rectangles covering the image are glitter, but mostly, this is as very powerful image.
This painting is full of symbols, some very unambiguous. And since I won’t be able to explain Marshall’s intent sufficiently, this is the write-up the Nelson has of this work:
“Memento #5 is the final painting in Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall’s Memento series, a five-part elegy to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The monochromatic painting on unstretched canvas depicts a black angel standing at the center of a living room and facing outward. Solemnly, the figure draws closed a glittery, silver curtain, symbolically concluding a decade of peaceful civil disobedience, courageous marches, visionary speeches, righteous legislation, explosive riots and tragic deaths. Behind the angel, at left and right, are the faces of four assassinated leaders: President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Each year of the tumultous decade is counted out between the glitter strands, and fragments of the word “Remember” are also visible. At the bottom of the painting, Marshall has written, “What a Time. What a Time.”
Except that’s not what I see.
I mean, I see the angel, the images of the Kennedy’s, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. I see the years, I see the text, and I certainly see the artist’s intent.
What I don’t see is a curtain. When I look at this painting, I see bars, like to a jail cell–and rather than pulling them closed, in my mind, the angel is bending them apart. Rather than being an elegy mourning the end of the civil rights movement, it’s a reminder, 50 years on, about how much more work there still is to do.
Which brings me back to the topic of symbols.
One of the things that I love about art is that the painting you see isn’t necessarily the painting the artist saw. The symbols morph and change for each person. Good art (and literature and music) has as many interpretations as it does viewers–and no one interpretation is better than any other.