by Osman Can Yerebakan
JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY | FEBRUARY 15 – MARCH 24, 2018
Dedicated to Barkley Hendricks’s lesser known works on paper, Them Changes starts with an X-ray image of a person’s derriere superimposed over a graphite drawing of an anonymous buttocks, the X-ray overshadowing the liveliness of human flesh. Surrounded by red hearts repeatedly stamped around its rectangular frame, this image perfectly encapsulates the exhibition’s demure potential in understanding the late artist’s prolific career as a painter and photographer. In Rear Entry (1974), Hendricks compresses crucial traits of his painterly faculties with humor. This skill, which the artist furtively implemented into his larger body of work, eloquently surfaces in the exhibition’s watercolors, drawings, and mixed-media collages. Delving under the skin towards the core, he meditates on human form in its most organic and voluptuous sense.
Bringing together a selection of works discovered by his widow and his dealer, the exhibition takes the audience into the backstage of Hendricks’s studio, breaking down the stimuli and aspirations that constituted the base of his grand practice. In his most emblematic body of work, the Philadelphian painter transcends the imposed limits of representation of black identity towards a timeless and placeless territory where posers occupied his frames not unlike fashion models or public protestors behind single-color backgrounds. This transient stance they manifested between swag and activism was amplified by their impossibly cool apparel and dandy postures, stripping them from social codes or historical narratives. Imbued with pride, vigor, and elegance, Hendricks’s subjects stare at us in their most embellished and buoyant selves.
A number of watercolor drawings date back to 1979, including an uncomplicated depiction of a half cut watermelon, a quartet of rotting bananas, and a trio of gradually decaying flowers inside a jar. One would be forgiven to ask, “How did these moderate still lives function for a thriving painter at the height of his career?” Hendricks envisioned his agrarian subjects similar to his portraits of nonchalant posers. Detached from any narrative amidst placid whiteness, the harvests convey poise and humility in Hendricks’s characterization of their corporeality. Intricate patterns and lavish garments transmit decorum in his most significant paintings; Hendricks here depicted the banana’s punctuated skin or the flower’s elegant demise with perseverance and denotation.
Infusing carnality and animation into his nonhuman subjects, the artist furthers his fascination with sexual playfulness, which prevailed in his portraits through overt or latent means. Think of Brilliantly Endowed (Self Portrait) (1977) or Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people) (1969) to grasp the tongue-in-cheek sexual innuendo Hendricks ingrained into the canvas while tackling issues of racism and objectification of the male Black body and identity. Either peeled off and devoured or horizontal and erect, the artist’s rendition of the banana resonates with his lighthearted approach to painting while remaining true to his subject’s physical and ethereal aspects. Replacing his models’ sharp sartorial choices in this exhibition are blue Chiquita brand stickers that accentuate each fruit with a humorous personification.
ContributorOsman Can Yerebakan
OSMAN CAN YEREBAKAN is a curator and art writer based in New York. Osman holds an MA in Art Management from the Fashion Institute of Technology. Among his fields of interest are fluid states of audience interaction, kinship between literature and fine arts, and performance of identity as political declaration.