Art

A Painter Reflects on When Black Men Get to Rest

After undergoing brain surgery, Mario Moore produced a series of works about Black men resting and recovering — a realm he describes as a “fantasy land.”

Mario Moore, “A Student’s Dream” (2017) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

DETROIT — For artist Mario Moore, it took getting brain surgery for him to allow himself a break. After a (possibly unrelated) seizure revealed a slow-growing astrocytoma, followed by an awake craniotomy, Moore found himself virtually unable to walk unassisted, needing to rely on the care of his girlfriend and capable of little more than pondering the particulars of healing. This stirred up a philosophical question for the young Black painter and Yale University graduate — one that, paradoxically, sent him straight back to work: When do Black men get to rest?

“The entire show is about this idea of Black men resting and recovering,” said Moore, in an interview with Hyperallergic the day before his show of drawing and painting on the subject, Recovery, which opened to packed crowd at David Klein Gallery. In the resulting body of work, which has come together in less than a year since the August 2017 surgery, Moore explores this question of rest in a handful of ways — including a performance that took place at the opening. The imagery on display falls into roughly three categories: drawn and painted self-portraits, small paintings of friends, and drawings of Black icons at rest.

Moore, adjacent to the first work he made following an awake craniotomy to amend a slow-growing brain tumor.

“I was trying to think about what Black men do to rest and recover in times of turmoil, and also what trauma does to the body,” said Moore. “Mentally, looking at these images of Black men being killed, over and over, that trauma — and then a constant state of Black men having to work, work, work. This idea of resting is a mystery, fantasy land!”

The work traces a loose chronology, with the first large-scale silverpoint drawing featuring Moore reclining on a couch, his surgery scar visible on the side of his head. Moore lounges sideways on the couch, propped on one elbow, in a pose that emulates a recurring theme he noticed among Black men on album covers.

Mario Moore, “Power Figures” (2017)

“Michael Jackson on Thriller, a Teddy Pendergrass album cover — there’s like four album covers with Black men in this exact same pose.” Moore is specifically interested in the balance between rest and power, and pays obsessive attention to the positioning of figures in paintings, noting that white men are much more likely to sit for portraits, while white women, and men and women of other races, are almost always standing.

This work is followed by a trio of small oil-on-copper paintings that feature friends of Moore, depicted from the shoulders-up. The scale, copper backings, and beatific expressions of the subjects give these works the feel of Russian Orthodox iconography; the unseen focus of attention that informs each of the men’s expression is each of their wives.

Mario Moore, “To Amani Minter “(2018), oil on copper

“I was thinking of these small moments, coming home and tell somebody about your day,” said Moore. “They’re all standing right next to their wives, and there’s something very sincere, something enduring, about their facial expressions, that you don’t really see from Black men.” Moore has done a number of paintings and drawings that focus on Black women, and was keen to keep the focus on the male experience in this new work.

Moore’s little sketches of his heroes at rest also tend to remove everything from the background, focusing exclusively on the figure of Miles Davis, James Baldwin, or Malcolm X, to name a few. In aggregate, they reveal a process of leveling these icons to human status — these men went on vacation, spent time with their families, and slept. The effort to lift up our Black heroes carries with it the potential to turn them into action figures, rather than humans with human needs. Moore’s collection is a touching portfolio of these moments.

Mario Moore, “Rest: Detroit Red” (2017), one of several small-scale drawings of Moore’s heroes at rest.

The centerpiece of the main gallery is a large oil painting that depicts the artist’s take on his own brain surgery in progress. Moore worked from imagery in medical textbooks, some of which were developed during the time when African Americans were subjected to medical experimentation. Moore’s self-portraits stand out from the other works in the gallery as the only ones with complete backgrounds, and the only ones in which the subject looks at the viewer. Moore makes unflinching, direct eye contact from his images — even those at rest — suggesting he hasn’t yet mastered the art of sleeping without one eye open.

Moore is a source of tremendous pride among the Detroit art community — son of artist and longtime DIA studio teacher Sabrina Nelson, and raised at the knee of painter Richard Lewis, who began to teach him the fundamentals of oil painting when Moore was only 14. Moore has carried forward their legacy of presenting fine art that centralizes Black experience, icons, history, and relationships, and a huge cross-section of the community was out, even on a scorchingly hot day, to support Moore’s hometown solo.

Image from the opening of Recovery, during a performance titled “Renew,” in which Moore received a haircut and talked through issues of Black male rest and recovery with his barber, Sebastian Jackson, and gallery visitors. (image courtesy Senghor Reid)

“Mario, I was so moved by your work, and the love and strength of your family,” wrote artist Tiff Massey in a Facebook post, following the opening. “Of course I’m standing there thinking about my own work ethic and how I forced myself to take the day off yesterday just to attend several art related events. (Which means more work). Thank you Mario, David Klein Gallery was black as fuck yesterday and will be for the next month.”

Solo shows by some of Detroit’s marquee Black male painters have been much in vogue this season, including Troublemaker by Taurus Burns, which ran at Hatch in May and is slated to open at Elijah Wheat Showroom in Brooklyn this fall, and a new solo show by Tylonn J. Sawyer opening last month at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art. It’s great to see these Black male artists getting their due, in a town with an art scene that can be white-dominated while the population remains majority African American.

Detroit, at its heart, is shaped by a “hustle hard” ethos, and is a point of pride, but it takes a toll, and the generational legacy of third-shift auto workers has historically placed a great deal of emphasis on hard work and getting money as a source of self-worth. Moore’s exhibition raises questions and reminders of the need to develop alternative tactics for long-term survival: care, healing, self-expression, and rest.

Mario Moore, “Not Your Landscape” (2018), (detail view). The scene depicts the artist at his 2017 Josef and Anni Albers Foundation Residency, where much of these works were completed.

Recovery by Mario Moore continues at David Klein Gallery (1520 Washington Blvd, Detroit) through August 11.

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