Born Detroit, 1987/MFA, Yale University; BFA, College of Creative Studies/ Lives in Brooklyn, New York
Mario Moore has learned to slow down. His paintings and drawings reflect his personal journey, his evolving understanding of the world, and his desire to spark conversation about the complexities of contemporary society. His powerful and assertive body of work channels narrative painting, social protest art, and traditional approaches to craft, and centers around revealing portraits of family and friends. A more recent series turns introspective, his personal story expressed through nearly-lost techniques and an interest in earlier periods of art that lend richness and sensitivity to his highly detailed compositions.
Paintings and drawings of individuals, especially women, who were personally known to Moore, established his early realist style. Inspired by Harlem Renaissance painters and post-World War II artists such as Charles White, Moore explored social themes and economic inequities as well as figure studies. The media is full of grieving mothers holding photographs of sons lost to violence; Moore upends this trope in the series “Mothers and Son” in which women hold images of their living sons, emphasizing “protection and power” through strong family ties. Such images led him to consider the contexts in which black men have been portrayed throughout art history. Contemporary painters such as Kehinde Wiley choose to place ordinary people in heroic situations as a way to subvert historic powerlessness. For Moore, what was missing was the introspective, vulnerable side of his sitters’ personalities, and he reached back into art history in a different way for inspiration. Intimate portrait heads, painted on copper, capture a subtle, quiet moment in his sitters’ lives. The choice of this traditional medium, seldom used in contemporary art, underscores that mood; the smooth application of the paint on the luminous surface reconciles light and dark to produce the visual equivalence of quietness.
The most recent work, a series called “Recovery,” was completed after a long hiatus from the studio when Moore underwent surgery for a brain tumor. The centerpiece of this series, The Student’s Dream (2017), is a three-quarter life-size painting that explores his fears around the surgery. The scene is inspired by images of nineteenth-century operating theaters, rooms in which doctors wear street clothes and no gloves, often have an audience, and a dog sleeps under the patient’s bed, a far cry from today’s sterile operating rooms. The European practice of hands-on anatomical dissection became popular in United States medical education in the late 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, and African American bodies, especially those of slaves, were a major source of anatomical material. Here, on the table, very much alive, is Moore. The three figures hunched over him focus our view on his head,turned toward us with an enigmatic expression — A challenge? A plea for help? Resignation? The “student’s dream” is rather more of a nightmare.
The “Recovery” series also includes large-scale drawings executed in the traditional – and mostly abandoned – medium of silverpoint. Moore values the “softness” of the line quality of silverpoint and uses its elusive, almost ghostly quality in a series of post-surgery self-portraits. In Can’t the New Negro Relax (2017), he reclines full-length on a couch in a classic pose usually reserved for female nudes. Above him, a portrait of the triumphant boxer Jack Johnson suggests the old normal of heroes and a contrast to Moore in his weakened state. Rest, a group of small silverpoint portraits, presents dynamic African American men – W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington (both 2017) – in moments of relaxation or quiet. Related to this group, the oil on copper Self Portrait After (2017) is worked in mirror image in the style of a Renaissance portrait and gives us the same intimate, emotional connection as the series of revealing self-portraits limned by Rembrandt throughout his life.
Two videos from the series explore a new interest in the combination of spoken narrative and moving image. I Wish It Was Mine (2017) is a meditation on “borrowed time,” referring not only to the historic place of black men in society, but also to his own brush with death; Moore’s voiceover muses, “I can choose, I can dream, I can breathe.” In a search for the expression of rest as a new paradigm for the depiction of black men, Moore calls on personal experiences, an understanding of the power of images, and brilliant technique to create works that are at once intimate and universal.
MaryAnn Wilkinson, July 2018
Copyright Essay’d 2018