Derek Jackson

Derek Jackson

Website URL:

All that and then some — The work of Barkley Hendricks at the Bowdoin Museum of Art

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.

NrthernLights Hendricks bowdoin

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.

ToastOfAmos Hendricks bowdoin

“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.

StarSpngled Chtlns Hendricks bowdoin

Star Spangled Chitlins, 1967, oil on canvas, by Barkley Hendricks, American, 1945- 2017. Photo By Luc Demers 

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.


smith galtney (2)Derek Jackson can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  • Published in Art

Clits Reigning Men — 'WILD FAMILY' creates a world at Border Patrol

You wanna know about Border Patrol? I'll tell you about Border Patrol. Elizabeth Spavento came here a year or two ago to head the visual art programming at SPACE Gallery. She and her partner, Border Patrol co-director and artist Jared Haug, came from the other Portland or somewhere like that, but they also brought a connection to a larger art world that our Portland is missing. Not to say that the artists here aren't amazing or haven't broken through local, regional and national ceilings, but there aren't many places a conceptual artist can go to get their groove on. Border Patrol is one of those places and I'm thankful it exists. (I'm being required to include a disclaimer with this review: I had a solo show at Border Patrol. Mmm, think it was two shows before this one. In light of that, I hope you don't mind if I get freaky but I also want to give Border Patrol their due respect. It's an important gallery and obviously I think so which is why I showed there.)

With the current show, WILD FAMILY, there's a breadth of materials that feels deceptively large. This makes sense because it's about creating a world. A world where women rule. From the artifactual sculptures of Cammie Staros to the handmade stationary by Erin Elyse Burns, this is a world with intention. Looking at the definition of intention as the healing process of a wound, I wonder if women can save us. If this show is any indication then the answer is yes. 

Conceptual art ain't always easy to understand. As an artist and as a man I sympathize with the dude I once heard say he hated art that required an explanation. But when the person doing the explaining is Elizabeth Spavento and the experience of transferring the history around a specific piece and its connection to native women is part of its design — yes, artist Demian DinéYazhi' required her to literally tell gallery viewers about #DecolonizeFeminism Poster Series '94 as a condition of its exhibition — then sorry buddy, enjoy your figure drawings, 'cause I'm over here trying to learn just what it's like for a girl. School's in session. 

If there was one conceptual artist I would tell you to study before seeing this show, it would be Felix Gonzales-Torres. I fucking love his work and any fears or discomfort I have about not understanding what conceptual art is or what a particular piece means all melt away when I see it. He's not on display here, but his legacy is present. The ability to translate something as simultaneously personal and far-reaching as the HIV pandemic is something Torres executes with materials ranging from candy to stacks of paper.

I love that a pathway to thinking about another gay male artist of color was opened to me by an exhibition that envisions a world ruled by women. It's a generous world and I admit, I feared I was too stupid to enter. Because of it and because of its form. 

Enter WILD FAMILY. 

WILDFAMILY 6

In First Light (2017) by Erin Elyse Burns

This is the part where I'm supposed to break down what some of the pieces mean and give a few artists their due. Maybe I'm just being lazy but I really don't wanna do that. Of course I know that as a curator, Spavento wants a good review (who doesn't?). But I think it's more so that I don't want to bullshit you, the reader, with some polemics that lay claim to understanding. I feel like I don't know shit about this and I'm embarrassed by the ways I haven't had to know. What I can do is say I'm willing to listen and learn about something I benefit from everyday: the labor of women. Women who rule.

I do like to occasionally spill the tea though, so fuck it. 

There's some tactile elements in this show that are giving me life. I'm not kidding when I say I feared I would be too dumb to understand this show, even before I knew it was about women (which then made me feel extra dumb). Upon entry I encountered Courtney Kemp's Vanities and Victories and thought Oh fuck, what is this? There are elements that are familiar, but the combination of materials is throwing me way off. I didn't know how to enter the world of it. That's because I had only been experiencing it with sight. With just a little direction from Elizabeth who invited me to touch it, my experience of the work completely changed. With consent. No, something else. Invitation. Which has me thinking all about consent and how as a man I was so ready to dismiss something I perceived as not being immediately accessible to me.

I would like to give some props to Elizabeth Atterbury. I see you, Elizabeth. Her work to me has always had a misty muted technicolor streak that has to do with nothing if not place and memory. I gagged when I heard she had made the offering here, sand-coated objects that look like miniature world wonders, elemental and built to last. I was surprised because I had always known her as a photographer so it was like oh hey girl, you made the leap to sculpture. I haven't followed her work closely over the years, but it wasn't for lack of interest; moreso knowing that as an artist she was not going away anytime soon and that when the time was right I'd be all up in it. I'm not much of a seeker but I stay ready to receive anything by Elizabeth Atterbury. I know she flirted with experiments in form early on and had been looking at ways to expand the boundaries of the picture frame. I got the low down from Spavento that this work is Atterbury's snapshot of motherhood through the architectural and topographic impressions of her Florida upbringing, reclaimed monuments to time and space. You go, girl — but please not back to Florida. 

The breadcrumbs that connected me to the memory of Felix Gonzales-Torres were Atterbury's piece Let it go, let it go, let it go followed by the work of Erin Elyse Burns, a series of display shelves with carefully crafted funerary boxes containing messages that immediate conjure what the artist refers to as "the incomplete communications existent throughout our lives." They let me know that as man, as a queer artist of color, as someone grappling with my own struggles and triumphs, I'd be okay in this WILD FAMILY.

Similar to the NYC-based queer women’s artist collective Fierce Pussy’s urgency around creating visibility through accessible means (Xerox-copied posters), Demian DinéYazhi' utilizes agitprop in an aesthetic and directed play with motif, information and performance. I love this piece but I also feel the most othered by it, conscious of my masculinity somehow. It unveils my own limited knowledge of the history of feminism. Even though it’s made by a queer artist, the fact that they are male feels like a side door into a world I didn’t earn the right to witness. At the time of this writing, I don’t even know if they are the only male in the show, but I know my ears piqued when Spavento informed me he was a he. I think I may have asked. I was relieved the show depicted a world that didn’t exclude men but ashamed of that relief somehow. Ashamed that I hadn’t done the homework required to earn my place among women like he had and that’s why I was on the outside looking in. Coveting his place just like a damn dude. And yet this piece informs me this is exactly why I’m here: to learn. #DecolonizeFeminism Poster Series transforms the passive viewer by inviting us to participate in the resistance to the ways Indigenous women’s voices have been erased. The use of performance with the curator being required to describe the work is brilliant and opens a door into a world that even other women have held closed through the whitewashing of feminism. [Ed: Per Spavento, a portion of sales of Demian DinéYazhi's work will be donated to the Indigenous Action Network.]

Okay, moving right along. So black women and why their work is important. Um, duh. Get the fuck out of here if you don't agree with that. Zakkiyyah Najeebah shows us the door with this simple video De(liberate) featuring Nina Simone, Toni Morrison and Sister Souljah. As art, it gets out of the way of itself, and as a contribution to the exhibition is yet another pathway that connected to moments in the history of black cultural production that I don’t get enough of in my life. Hello pathways. Who knew a world ruled by women would have so many. 

According to the curatorial statement for the show, “WILD FAMILY is dedicated to memories, representations, and imaginings of matriarchy. Named after a 1510 drawing by artist Albrecht Altdorfer, this exhibition imagines a world in which women rule ... the exhibition uses (Alfdorfer’s) drawing as a framing mechanism as both an alternate history and as a dissection of patriarchy. Like Altdorfer, the works on display de-naturalize current power relationships while conjuring the arrival of a transformed landscape. Assuming that historical representations contain kernels of worlds to come, WILD FAMILY stumbles toward a suffusion of female energy.”

Okay, shit is about to get real. There’s a pitfall in conceptual art. You can’t un-know something. It’s like a movie by M. Night Shyamalan. The knowing stays fun but it never matches the thrill of that first reveal. That’s a best-case scenario. The worst case is that the dude who hates conceptual art because it has to be explained will say “story or not, this piece sucks.” Spavento’s three drawings don’t suck. But before I knew the stories behind them, I did notice their departure from a world that otherwise felt more tightly crafted. And this is purely about taste here. Which even talking about my taste like it matters more than what I’m ostensibly “tasting” makes me feel like a lip-smacking sex trafficker who buys and sells women. I have to rearrange my thinking if I’m going to contribute to this WILD FAMILY and look at the ways that Spavento — also the curator — is pushing the materiality of the other artists forward with this ephemeral mess of gouache on paper. Hmmm…leading from the back…interesting.

Spavento’s Transtrance (for Kajanne Pepper) and Where babies come from (wombroom) come off as counterpoints to the two ceramic and brass sculptures by Cammie Staros titled Siren (<>) and Siren (There Key Slow & Stead). With a nod to antiquity and archeological preservation, Staros conjures the type of forms you would see in a history museum. I think that’s why I avoided the vessel-like structures at first and why I'm thinking about them now, toward the end. There’s something sad to me about objects being put behind glass or on a pedestal that were once a vital part of people’s everyday lives. A closer look through the fear of erasure, I see that they are actually vibrant and strong objects imbued with a figurative vitality, recalling ancient forms and a world where their creation and use still exists. Staros writes in her artist statement that “by encouraging consideration of both the art-object and the self-as-object, I hope to compare ways that art and bodies are displayed, looking and being looked at.” In light of that, it makes sense I found myself questioning my own gaze and how that gaze was transformed by acceptance of not what this work looks like but what it could be — a body, a tool — much like way we view other people and brush up against our ideas of who they might be, how qualities like their strength or fragility are performed, inhabited or seen.

The video work by Nika Kaiser, I really love. It felt very personal. Seeing the woman in the video interact with the landscape recalls the physical sensation of sand, ocean, how you feel your body in a different way when interacting with the elements. There's a performative revolution around the natural environment, the body and the use of visual evidence as storytelling that takes me back to the late Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. Where many of Mendieta's earth/body sculptures occurred privately with documentary photographs of the performative work being all that remained, the audience is allowed to see the woman in Kaiser as she traverses the landscape with a furrowed brow that says: this is the business, the business of what Spavento describes (in reference to the figures in the 1510 drawing by Albrecht Altdorfer that the exhibition is named after) what it takes to not exploit the natural environment but rather participate within it.

I thought I was too dumb and male to understand this show until I realized all you have to do in this WILD FAMILY is to receive the wisdom, strength and beauty offered by the women who rule it. 


WILD FAMILY, group exhibition | Through October 28 | Border Patrol, 142 High St. Ste 309, Portland | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Derek Jackson can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  • Published in Art

Art & Nomenclature — A Room Full of White Dudes at Speedwell Projects

With Speedwell Projects’ current exhibition The Loved Ones, photographs by Smith Galtney of Maine and Matthew Papa of New York City, I wondered whether I could write an objective review.

Smith is a friend and I love his work. But not every relationship is perfect and some of the issues I have with ours offered perspective. For this review, I decided to let go of objectivity.

Speedwell Projects is a new gallery on outer Forest Avenue near Woodfords Corner opened by the nationally recognized photographer Jocelyn Lee. From what I’ve seen, hers is a measured and gracious force that I trust will ground this newly minted multi-use art and performance venue. Her eye is honed and has a story of its own.

The legacy represented and propelling the work shown in The Loved Ones, in both culture and production, is fully intertwined with my own. Look no further than the book of Alvin Baltrop photography on the coffee table that greets you in what is Smith’s attempt to lay a historical groundwork for the exhibition. Baltrop was under-recognized during his lifetime for his photographs from the ‘70s and ‘80s of gay black men cruising the West Side Highway piers, the center of New York City’s gay sex underground. While the visual language of this time is more evident in the subjects and poses in Matthew’s work, Smith pins it to a contemporary moment in the form of a slideshow video, schooling us on the art of deadpan photographic delivery, unadorned commitment to light and inside views of domesticity.

SmithGaltney5

Photograph by Smith Galtney

Let’s rewind to right before I’m getting ready to see the exhibition. The routine is familiar: eat a balanced meal, pack an extra layer, park my bicycle at least a block away so that I have time to prepare myself to be surrounded by a room full of white dudes. Smith greeted me as soon as I entered.

Before even looking at the work I ask, “So what about race?” Of course, he fumbles nervously. Then he replies. “I love photography,” he says, and adds something about just trying to be a decent human being. Before even seeing the show, I went into this all hung up on the issue of naming in the context of identity politics. The press release introduces The Loved Ones as a show by two gay photographers. That’s it. Just two gay photographers. So. Like. What kind of gay? Would it be like black and brown fem bodies dancing to fierce house music and burning incense? No? Not that type of gay? Oh right, the middle-aged white dude type of gay. The default.

This is hard to explain. “Gay white male” is more specific than just gay. Just gay assumes whiteness (unless there are black artists present, then it would be othered and called a gay black show). But what’s more specific than gay white male — and this is the point I’m trying to make — are Smith and Matthew’s individual visions. So at first glance, the show looks very gay white male. I’m mostly talking about the audience — the people who came to the reception and the legacy the work is coming from. Looking again, there is some gender and ethnic diversity. The show doesn’t feel as white as the framing of it did in its press release and advertising. But that too is interesting — that presumption of whiteness.

I know Smith. I have collaborated with him, and while I may not look like the middle-aged gay white man represented in this exhibition, I know his ways and have been supported by his work. We have overlapping themes in our work as artists which reference the way gay men cruise for casual intimacy and negotiate acceptance. I see the Matthew Papa photographs and their daring nod to art created in a time when sex could first mean death. I know what it feels like to fight for something only to be told that it can now kill you.

What about you? Did you know about a sea of gay white dudes in the Castro, rising and falling in the alternating triumph of sexual liberation and the caustic ruin of AIDS? Did you also know about their dance parties and political tirades? The press release describes Smith and Matthew as two gay artists. Why is whiteness left out as an assumed default?

Keep it real and call it what it is — two middle-aged gay white dudes taking photos on fairly opposite ends of the respectability spectrum. One takes them as a way of documenting a settled and pedestrian middle-aged gay married life (Galtney) and the other makes images with nudes and ephemerality (Papa). If you’re gonna name something, don’t beat around the identity bush — name it! If this is “gay white male” culture, then it is one with a history that overlaps with my own (and many others’). Will these labels help us see in these photographs the heartbreaking beauty in what it means to forge ahead? To live? To die? To be seen? To celebrate and to hesitate? To be human and to be loved? This is the legacy I see living and breathing in this work. Whether or not it belongs to the identity and culture of gay white men is a question that will have to sit alongside the historical importance and quiet bravery on display.


 

The Loved Ones, photography by Smith Galtney & Matthew Papa | Through September 1 | SPEEDWELL Projects, 630 Forest Ave., Portland | Tues-Sat 2-6pm | Artist talk July 28 5:30pm

  • Published in Art
Subscribe to this RSS feed