Whenever I go to see a show by a black artist in a primarily white institution I find myself questioning whether I will be distracted by a white gaze and curatorial context. Will I resist an idea of blackness because I perceive that it has been selected for me by a non-black gatekeeper imbued with the white power to decide which blacks are elevated to the canons of art history? I don’t know the skin color of the curator at Bowdoin’s Museum of Art; for all I know this year’s student enrollment could have been majority non-white. What I do know is that the Barkley Hendrick's show is a gift to our community’s creative consciousness.
By community, I mean anyone interested in painting, beauty, technique, portraiture, color, Black life in America, social commentary, post-modernity, and graphic design. So yeah, pretty much everyone. The mass appeal of these paintings is undeniable and generously revealed. The show is small but tight. Sister Lucas (1975) is framed by the entry way to the gallery. A female nude standing in the center of a rounded canvas, she is seemingly cut out of a world that the look on her face says is nothing she fears.
Northern Lights, 1976, oil and acrylic on canvas, by Barkley Hendricks, American, 1945-2017 Photo By: Luc Demers
Once inside, the “large triple full-length” painting Northern Lights (1976) caught my eye like broken glass crushed into a city street. This is where I thought the show might lose me. From a distance the painting screams Blaxploitation, which makes me think of the '90s and how the '70s were so big then. I shuffle over as the Isley Brothers energy of Northern Lights calls out to say “now wai-a-ait a minute!” I check out the way Hendricks gets down with the fabric on this brother man’s coat like in The Princesse de Broglie. This dude is totally grounded in technique worthy of celebration and unapologetically rooted in time and place. Check out homie’s gold tooth. You just can’t deny the way Hendricks captures the light in a grill that we get to sit with, not just pass on the street.
“Toast” of Amos, 1966, oil on canvas, by Barkley Hendricks, American, 1945- 2017. Lent by a Friend of the Museum. Photo By Luc Demers
Continuing with the theme of light is Toast (1966), a close-up of a dark brown skinned man in “rich” turtle neck. The painting is almost all solid fields of brown, white, red and blue. The sitter is described as having “a pose that might suggest that he was reading a book in his lap while Hendricks observed his face.” Words like refined, delicate, thoughtful and considered all come to mind. Somewhere in the back of my head I hear a voice saying you never see black men portrayed this way. Ever. I try to push it away. It’s not true why would I even think that. I tell myself this is totally normal. I see this every day. I tell myself just focus on the scholarly young man … focus on the way Hendricks lifts the glint of light in his glasses … a tiny spark on gold rim.
Star Spangled Chitlins (1967) neatly connects historical and political dots. Maybe I’m just a negative Ned but there’s something unsettling about its beauty. It inspires a yearning for an America that is as well crafted as this painting but with the absence of a person (only a flag and chair are seen) it’s a vision of American politics and race relations that is at once all sewn up and unfinished. Hendricks called the painting FTA (1968) his most political work. Its lime-green background somehow manages to get behind an African-American man in uniform, his snarky downturned mouth gracing a beautiful black face. The title stands for Fuck the Army. According to the wall text, “This work expresses the frustration and distress among African-American citizens in uniform ordered to serve a political system that many believed did not appropriately represent them.” Like the painting itself, that’s a very nice way of putting it.
From 11th century hellenistic iconography to Yoruba ceremonial objects, the way that humans organize the visual frame around portraiture is pretty … singular. Iconography is at play in another room in the museum with the exhibit, Constructing Revolution: Soviet Propaganda Posters from between the World Wars. That show is described as containing, “some of the most iconic images in the history of graphic design.” It is clear that artists and designers were looking at this work during the '60s and '70s period of post-modernity that produced Barkley Hendricks. While some artists during that time were known for bringing the political fire to the cultural table, Hendricks brought the fire and the finesse.
Barkley Hendricks died in April of this year so your chance to meet a real live black artist working in the relevant themes of visibility and politics has passed. Friends and collectors will share memories of the artist on Thursday the 12th from 12 to 1pm. Chances are that all of us art lovers will be influenced by the work of Barkley Hendricks for generations to come.