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Walking into "Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is like walking into a 1970s casting call for a Shaft sequel. Hendricks's portraits of primarily African-American urbanites from that period are packed with great, now campy, imagery. To contemporary eyes, his canvases are loaded with the visual signifiers of blaxploitation films — wide collars, giant Afros, velvet trench coats. But after the initial "Oh my god, look at that plaid suit!" reaction dies down, there is the painting — and it's really, really great painting.
Organized by Trevor Schoonmaker of Duke University's Nasher Museum, "Birth of the Cool" aptly appropriates a Miles Davis album as its exhibition title. Hendricks's portraits have been called "cool realism," but they are also just freakin' cool. Featuring work from 1964 to the present, the bulk of these paintings was done in the heyday of the black-power movement. The show begins with work from 1964, a year before Malcolm X was assassinated, and runs through the 1966-76 decade of the Black Panther Party. It was a time when a lot of white people felt their grip on power and privilege loosening and were consequently scared shitless. Forthright and assertive, Hendricks's subjects are incredibly self-possessed, coolly assessing the viewer as they sport their incredibly cool, 1970s-era wardrobe.
Hendricks's work skillfully riffs on two dominant 1970s art trends — minimalist painting and photorealistic painting. He sets his subjects almost exclusively against solid-color backgrounds. These are not the kinds of backgrounds a painter quickly brushes in because he doesn't care about or can't figure out what is going on behind the figure. These chromatically dense, optically seductive planes of pigment are as carefully and thoughtfully executed as any minimalist monochrome. The figures sit on top of these areas of rich color, the often acrylic backgrounds receding while the figures' satiny oil paint sheen brings them to the fore.
J.S.B. III (James Sherman Brantley) (1968) is a fantastic early work. In the three-quarter-length portrait, a man with black sunglasses and an afro that runs off the top of the canvas seems to be lit from behind by the vibrant, tomato-red of the background. His black sweater is only slightly darker than his skin, and the parallel white stripes at his V-neck, short sleeves and waistband radiate more dramatically than a Barnett Newman-painted "zip."
Formally, the way the dark figure is set against the bright ground has the bold visual impact of hard-edged abstract painting — but it's combined with the emotional power of the dynamic subject. Hands in his pockets and arms slightly akimbo, the man seems to rest his weight on one leg. But his torso is military-straight, and his jaw is firmly set under his expansive mustache. It's a provocative blend of relaxed cool and readiness. Shaft himself would be impressed.
The red background and dark figure are a knockout. As the exhibition catalog points out, hot young artists like Kehinde Wiley and Jeff Sonhouse have paid homage to the work with their own versions of it. But Hendricks is just as good in works in which the color palette is significantly more restrained.
In multiple works, the artist paints his subjects in white clothes on a white ground. Steve (1976) shows a man clad in skillfully and subtly rendered white pants, white shirt and white trench coat. The subject's face and shoes are spots of contrast in the almost polar expanse of the canvas. Hendricks deftly puts the central composition off balance by cutting off the top of the figure's head and the bottom of one foot. It's an incredibly striking work.
In Vendetta (1977), another white-on-white-themed work, a woman with a cascade of tiny braids is seated on a stool. The painting is pointedly cropped just below the crotch of her white pants. She wears a little white tank top with a tiny little flower on the neckline and the word "bitch" written across her chest. The slender lines of the letters contrast with the strategically placed roundness of the "b" and the "h" that curve over each breast. The history and use of the word "bitch" in popular culture is too complex and lengthy to get into. But here, the woman seems to wear the logo with an aggressive pride. With elbows out and hands on her thighs, the woman's dark arms create a kind of parentheses, bracketing her torso, evoking the kind of tough sexuality embodied in period film characters like Pam Grier's Foxy Brown.
But Vendetta doesn't come across as entirely serious. There is definitely something sly and ironic about the painting. A similar but significantly more sarcastic humor pervades Hendricks's Brilliantly Endowed (Self Portrait), also from 1977. Hendricks stands naked, save for tube socks, tennis shoes, a wristband and a white cap. The title, in addition to being a smartass reference to black male sexual stereotypes, is also a direct quote from a Hilton Kramer review of Hendricks's work in The New York Times.
Hendricks's 21st-century work is equally strong if you ignore his recent landscape paintings. Shown in a room by itself, Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen (2002) is an icon-like portrait of Nigerian Afrobeat musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Clad in a neon orange shirt and pants, grabbing his crotch and singing into a microphone with a halo over his head and an Africa-shaped flaming heart of Jesus on his chest, Fela is shown against a patterned and gilded background. A collection of 27 decorated high heels are strewn on the ground before the painting. Wall text explains that they reference Fela's 27 wives, mostly his composers, dancers and singers. It's a portrait as over-the-top as the subject's personal life. Things get even better when the lights in the room click over to black light and the painting glows.
I didn't learn about Barkley L. Hendricks in art history class when I was taught about contemporaries of his like Chuck Close and Philip Pearlstein. Hendricks is a fascinating, talented and not easily categorized artist, and it's high time he was given his due. This is his first painting retrospective. Thanks, CAMH, for bringing him to town.
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