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Jared Bowen, GBH
Jared Bowen, GBH
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Barkley L. Hendricks was a contemporary American painter who made pioneering contributions to Black portraiture and conceptualism. Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston takes us to an exhibit of his work at Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum, and shows us how Hendricks used the camera as what he called his “mechanical sketchbook." It's part of our arts and culture series, "CANVAS."
Barkley L. Hendricks was a contemporary American painter who made pioneering contributions to Black portraiture.
Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston takes us to an exhibit of his work at Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum and shows us how Hendricks use the camera as what he called his mechanical sketchbook.
It's part of our arts and culture series, canvas.
Barkley Hendricks was renowned painter of people, placing the strangers who caught his eye against halos of hot pink or fields of ocean blue.
Personality oozes here, even out of finely textured denim. But after his death in 2017, the discovery of photographs Hendricks made over a lifetime revealed how much he saw with his camera.
Gannit Ankori, Direct, Rose Art Museum:
The way an artist would sketch in a sketchbook to kind of remind himself of what he saw, Barkley Hendricks called the camera his mechanical sketchbook.
Which is the name given to this show at Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum, where Gannit Ankori is the director.
His virtuoso way of painting kind of makes the people jump off the canvas and dazzle you.
The photographs, they also have that mesmerizing, riveting presence.
From his earliest days growing up in North Philadelphia, Hendricks walked the city with a camera around his neck.
But it was during his travels throughout Europe in 1966 when the then-21-year-old artist saw and photographed work that would change his life, paintings by the old masters.
He also knew his art history really, really well. For example, in this self-portrait, when you see the way he's dressed and the way he gestures, you immediately think of Velazquez in Las Meninas or his self-portrait in a hub. The hub becomes a convex mirror, and it recalls van Eyck's Arnolfini wedding portrait, or Parmigianino's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
Hendricks found the museum paintings riveting for their beauty, but striking for their lack of Blackness.
He decided that his role would be to bring his people, his friends, his family, himself, bring them visibility.
He also turned the gaze on himself, occasionally in nude self-portraits. He titled this painting Brilliantly Endowed, after a 1977 New York Times review labeled him — quote, unquote:
Brilliantly endowed, meaning as a painter.
But, of course, all the tropes of the hypersexuality of Black men and what that means.
Elyan Jeanine Hill, Guest Curator, Rose Art Museum:
So, you see him playing with visibility, hypervisibility, and invisibility in these various ways that I think, in a post-2020 U.S., is very important for us to think about how Black and brown people come into view.
Elyan Jeanine Hill, the show's co-curator, is talking about this photograph, in which Hendricks proudly wears the banner of Superman just as he disappears behind sunglasses, and all while nude from the waist down.
Elyan Jeanine Hill:
I think part of the revelation of what he's doing in photography is that we get to see the world through his eyes, in a sense.
He's central. We don't get to kind of push him to the side and make our own assumptions.
Hendricks bristled at assumptions, especially when his work was labeled political.
What did he have to contend with there when people would use that word over and over again?
Yes, I think people often used the word as a way to dismiss his work as doing only one thing, when what he was really doing was showing this deep complexity of the people he saw around him, but also of the nation that he lived in.
A nation where he saw Anita Hill fashioned as a pariah, where space was made for the Ku Klux Klan, and the Confederate Flag was embraced.
He's building in these contrasts. He has images of Confederate Flags, him trying to understand the political tensions in the U.S.
But then I also noticed, in Passion Dancehall #1, which is an image of a man and woman dancing, and it's Jamaican dance hall, and the colors in it are the colors of the Pan-African Flag, or the Black liberation flag.
Hendricks seemed to revel in life's pleasures, in togetherness, in the personality of pumps, and the portability of musical play in boom boxes, all signs he recorded as the beauty in life.
There's a lot of sensuality in the beauty that he portrays. That, for me, brings to mind the portrait of Vendetta. She's nude. She's sitting in lotus position. Her body forms these angles that are, like, almost star-like.
Not to mention a mechanism, like the mechanical sketchbook, for seeing the world with the widest possible lens.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Waltham, Massachusetts.
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