van Eyckxploitation

John Haber
in New York City

Barkley L. Hendricks and Shinique Smith

Barkley L. Hendricks packs so much into his paintings that one can easily forget how simple they are. Almost all are straightforward portraits of himself and friends. They stand, more or less frontally and more or less at ease, against a background without shadow or nuance. Sometimes the background fades to white, and sometimes they dress all in white, too. They are going nowhere fast, except perhaps to poster art.

Hendricks, however, has something else in mind. Fans remember his work as wild colors in collision. It stands, in turn, for other collisions, between Western art and African-African community. Like the rest of the 1960s and 1970s, it reflects a defining moment in culture and an influence today. The Studio Museum in Harlem calls his retrospective "Birth of the Cool," after the Miles Davis classic some twenty years earlier. Yet things had clearly heated up. Barkley L. Hendricks's Sweet Thang (Lynn Jenkins) (Nasher Museum at Duke University, 1975)

That sounds like a great deal to ask of academic painting in search of revisionism. The curator, Trevor Schoonmaker of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, is thinking big. Yet it helps to look for less—in some plain choices and a modest but corrosive sense of humor. In the project room, Shinique Smith boasts even less, even as she covers the basement walls with graffiti and other traces of herself. A postscript brings her up to date a few months later, taking her painted traces out of the basement and off the wall.

Face value

Hendricks sticks to the basics. More often than not, he works from photographs. He might have learned to strip out their surroundings from Photoshop, except that he began in the late 1960s. His portraits have the unnaturally clean outlines and weightlessness of modern academic art as well. One can see why his retrospective will travel to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. He studied at that bastion of academic training, before attending the trendier Yale.

He knows his craft. His earliest faces have softer, more realistic shadows. Yet all his figures have a clear stance and sharply modeled features. In an early self-portrait, his easel mimes the columnar drapery behind him. It lends him both a dream space and geometric architecture, as in the "metaphysical" realism of Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà just before World War I. The round scarf on a woman's head has much the same concern for bold, columnar form.

Mostly, though, shadows on clothing play down anatomy, while pushing figures closer to the picture plane. The typical color scheme—of monochrome background and bright attire—flattens things further, while similarly aiming for impact. Hendricks likes to bring the top of a head close to a painting's edge. He cuts off feet, leaving people floating rather than firmly on the ground, but also closer to the viewer, as if they stood outside the painting. At times he pursues those plain backgrounds to gold leaf, trading Renaissance solidity for Byzantine flatness. One could write him off as just a "face painter," and even then he often shields the details of a face with sunglasses.

In every way, he takes his subjects at face value. He does not smear them or efface them like Andy Warhol, Richard Prince, or David Shrobe. He does not preach to them, mock them, or appropriate them. He does not even attempt to play mind games with painting or blackness. If his subjects hew to stereotypes, he celebrates them. If others at the Studio Museum have claimed a post-black identity, he is proudly pre-post-black.

What, then, makes the show so colorful, so discordant, and yet so predictable? It says something that reviews have most frequently displayed two works from opposite ends of his career—before and after the monochrome. In the first, a woman's green shirt never quite gets along with her green patterned skirt, much less her pink-purple head scarf and matching bubblegum. Her angled legs upset the symmetry of a sofa. Her sprawl and her shadow put a huge dent in the seat cushions. Throw in a Native American rug and more green in the sickly tiling behind her head, and you have a real mess.

Or how about the African pop singer with a microphone in one hand, a cigarette in the other, a thumb fingering his pants just below his crotch, and crazy eyes? The acid shadows lining his yellow jumpsuit clash with the gold floral wallpaper. The same outrageous colors appear in the reflection on his mike and a shining halo tilted in depth. More yellow-gold leaps up as flames above a bright red tongue on his chest ringed by a crown of thorns. It looks like a cross between a sacred heart and a Rolling Stones logo. True, Hendricks has cut off the singer's feet, but he has found room on the floor for a couple of dozen painted women's shoes.

African-American academia

He throws in everything but the kitchen sink technically, too. Almost all his paintings combine oil and acrylic, even before gold leaf rounds out a history of Western painting. That history appears conceptually as well. In the poses and costumes, the curator finds references to quite a cast—including Jan van Eyck, Anthony van Dyck, Rembrandt, the Three Graces, and Caravaggio, perplexingly labeled a Renaissance artist. Viewers are more likely to see echoes of the early 1970s, from porn magazines, soul album covers, and blaxploitation flicks. Fashion shoots supply the most blatant precedent of all for the costumes, the blank backdrops, and the general swagger.

At this point, one may want to cry for mercy—or at least a reality check. If van Dyck ever held the copyright on red topcoats, it has expired. Yet Hendricks genuinely counts all these as influences. In turn, he has indulged in and influenced his share of glib and pretentious takes on black history and the Old Masters, in what Umar Rashid would call the Kingdom of Harlem. Chris Ofili has his Madonna of the elephant turds. Kehinde Wiley inserts his slackers inserted into well-known paintings, in front of glitzy wallpaper.

Hendricks respects tradition, his sitters, and his own talents enough to take them all seriously—very, very seriously. In case one missed the point of gold leaf, a woman's afro gives her a kind of halo, and she seems certain that she deserves it. Others may wonder. The glint of the artist on sunglasses may allude to van Eyck's reflection in a mirror, if one looks hard enough to spot it. It cannot, however, create the fine detail and many-layered interior of the Northern Renaissance. It does not really add meaning at all.

Games like these deserve respect. Details matter, and so does a love of painting. Yet they also have a drawback: the allusions are superficial additions, quite as much as fashion. They flatten the paintings that much more, and they bring out the limits of conventional realism for today. One does better to set them aside, so that the portraits can get back to basics.

Allowed its simplicity, Hendricks's repertoire looks colorful and layered after all. Consistently, the background clashes with clothing of almost the same shade, like wool plaid against harsh red. The sloppy shadows help create contrast between whites. Reflections all over sunglasses, bubblegum, and jewelry make more emotional sense of these somber faces. The white on white, except for black skin, has an especial virtuosity—especially when men in white clothing almost hide a naked, standing woman. The references to high and low culture start to seem less pompous and more like humor at the artist's own expense, as in a nude self-portrait with an exaggerated physique.

While small as retrospectives go, this one covers the entire main floor and mezzanine. One can hardly help noticing that Hendricks mostly gave up portraits for nearly twenty years, for other media and other genres. A photograph of more women's shoes is in the lobby. He has even tried misty landscapes, in oval frames and lunettes that bring them closer still to American Romanticism. Maybe one never will know for sure when one is laughing at him or with him. At least, though, one can smile.

Below street level

I have never thought of Shinique Smith as a street artist. In "Frequency" in 2006, her fabric plinth seemed as far from urban graffiti as an emerging black artist could get. Now she returns to add her own handwriting on the wall. She still, however, likes to cover her traces.

In graffiti, an artist's signature takes over the painting—and often over the property of others as well. Smith's bundled clothing appears as sculpture, with nearly the strict geometry of Minimalism. Meanwhile its warmth, texture, lightness, anonymity, and muted colors could serve as a rebuke to the macho sensibilities of Jean-Michel Basquiat or Richard Serra. Instead of adding her tag, she strips the tags off clothing. Even when her marks have spread to the wall, in a Chelsea solo show, they form playful curves. Bits of fabric and other found objects often lie nearby, on the floor and in corners, as if the bundle has come apart of its own volition.

Smith instead empties the floor, while covering the walls with more scrawls. The density of her curves in black and blue makes them that much messier. Yet they run more or less horizontally—and more or less at eye level—rather than reaching to cover every inch of wall space. That brings them further from graffiti and closer still to handwriting. The thin washes, too, recall calligraphy, this time under the influence of Asian art. One can almost make out words, which supposedly include song lyrics, but the message never quite reveals itself or coheres.

Other clues mingle with the painting, and they sure look personal. The collage includes ads and snapshots of young people. Are they the artist herself, friends, and lovers? Instead of labeling the photos to say for certain, the pigment may partly obscure them. Together, collage and paint give the impression not of a public mural but a private space, like a dorm room or the artist's studio. The Studio Museum basement takes one even further from open lots and abandoned buildings.

Not that Smith ever quite embraced abstraction. Castoff fabric has stories to tell—of fashion, of families, or of the homeless. The New Museum included another plinth of hers last year in "Unmonumental," no doubt in the belief that it was coming apart. The blue swirls have something in common with erasures of New York landmarks by Gary Simmons. Another African American, Julie Mehretu, has used wall drawings to abstract away from the realities of city life, as imagined mappings. Once again, Smith differs mostly by personalizing an installation while hesitating to reveal herself.

It is a tribute to her that I wanted to know more. Yet I also wanted to feel more, more like the weight of her clothing—or the heft of the lyrics that one never gets to read. For once, instead of complaining about an overstuffed installation, I found myself wishing that she had pushed to the floor and ceiling. The limits arise in part from the project space, in only its second exhibition. Imagine if the museum had transferred all this to its unused alley, adjacent to the lobby and visible from inside. I suspect that Smith and New York City still have stories left to tell.

Piling it on

Even when Smith binds up piled fabric, it seems to float. It may form plinths, in the strict geometry of Minimalism. Still, it undermines their weight, in part just by rooting monumental art in women's and African American lives. Smith's sculpture could have defined "Unmonumental," even before she appeared in that 2008 show. Back out of the basement, she may even float too high.

Her colorful rags could still smother someone, both in cast-off clothing and in its history. That theme stood out when she appeared among emerging artists in Harlem.

In her return to the Studio Museum, she drew on graffiti and the elegance of abstraction. The free curves combined the same elements as her sculpture—the energy of the streets, urban history, the convergence of craft and fine art, density, and open spaces. With their hints of calligraphy, like Cui Fei or Paul Glabicki, she might have had something to write home about.

It also showed her less willing to accept categorization as an African-American woman. In the galleries this time, she votes that much more for art, especially art of the twentieth century. Up close, some fabric patterns cut loose, and one collage barely stands on the floor.

Still, she forms the simplest plinth in the center of the gallery in sparkling, laundered white. Five tall fabric panels run through a strict but bright color palette. The many paintings have the scale of medium-to-large canvas.

They also let her curls run free. Some debris turns up here and there in the color fields, along with paint. One remembers, though, the black waves and white space. I felt the same puzzle as with late de Kooning: had he found repose—or just lost his edge? I lean to the first, and Smith (unlike me) is nowhere near senility, but I wonder if she is not in transit to somewhere new.

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"Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool" and Shinique Smith ran at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 15, 2009. Smith continued at Yvon Lambert through July 31.


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