Archibald Motley at LACMA

“Archibald Motley: Jazz-Age Modernist,” now at LACMA, could be mistaken for two shows. Motley came to attention in the 1920s with riveting portraits of persons of color (above, Woman Peeling Apples, 1924). Not long afterward Motley’s output shifted to the work he’s mainly known for: colorful, cartoonish crowd scenes of black nightlife in Paris and Chicago (below, Saturday Night, 1935). It’s possible to feel that Spike Lee had turned into Tyler Perry.

One key to Motley’s career arc is the “New Negro” movement. The African-American intellectual Alain Locke called for blacks to create literature and art presenting their race in a dignified manner. Motley’s early portraits exemply this and prove that “dignified” does not have to be boring. Below is Motley’s 1933 Self-Portrait (Myself at Work). It recalls the the New Objectivity of Germany (which, by the way, will have a LACMA show next fall). Germans of the period favored occupational portraits with a magic-realist slant. While the French developed surrealism, the New Objectivists—and Motley—understood the power of the Dutch proverb, “Be yourself, and you will be strange enough.”

The New Negro was often blackish. Harlem Renaissance literature explored the “talented tenth” of educated and affluent blacks, and the nuances of skin tone within the black community. Locke himself adopted a Barnabas Collins umbrella in sunlight, to preserve his light complexion.

Many of Motley’s female sitters are mixed-race, a fact that is underscored by Motley’s titles: Octaroon, Mulattress with Figurine and Dutch Seascape. Motley had some white and Native-American ancestry, and he married a white woman when this was illegal in most states. The artist’s wife is the subject of two impressive portraits from 1930, one nude and one dressed to the nines. Motley’s zaftig missus, of German ancestry, fills the space like Dr. Mayer-Hermann of Otto Dix’s New Ojectivity 1926 masterpiece. In the full-dress portrait, an out-sized fox stole destabilizes the composition, like seeing a beautiful woman make a phone call with a phablet a couple sizes too big.

With the comic nightlife scenes, Motley inverts the New Negro premise. Figures are reduced to ethnic caricatures and shown engaging in popular, “stereotypical” entertainments. A gallery text connects Motley to hokum, a jazz term for a lowbrow joke insinuated into serious music or art.

One example of hokum is Motley’s Card Players. It’s a Bronzeville send-up of Cézanne. But it’s not just an art-history joke; the still-life of cards and tobacco is perfect, as is the sense that the tabletop is not quite right. Motley has reinvented the most important and subtle elements of the Cézanne.

Saturday Night takes the Cézanne game with perspective to another level. The nightclub is a haunted shack where gravity is suspended. Dancer, waiters, and customers struggle to remain upright—a problem for the artist and just about everyone else in 1935.

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