Lyman Allyn Art Museum
New London, CT
The following essay was was included in the exhibition catalogue for a one-person exhibition, The Barkley L. Hendricks Experience on view at the Lyman AIIyn Art Museum through June 17, 2001. The 48-page color catalog, also titled The Barkley L. Hendricks Experience, features essays by well-known Art History scholars Richard J. Powell, the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art History at Duke University, and Floyd R. Thomas, Jr., Ph.D., Curator of Art at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center.
A Personal Reflection on The Barkley L. Hendricks Experience - As I See It
by Floyd R. Thomas, Jr.
It was through the generosity of a donor with a particularly astute eye that I first became aware of the art of Barkley Hendricks. Mr. Joseph Erdelac had previously presented the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center a complete series of the John Brown serigraphs by Jacob Lawrence. He next offered a life-size portrait of Jules Taylor by an artist whose work I had not seen. When I arrived in Cleveland to view the painting, New Orleans Niggah, I was immediately struck by the exquisite detail in the subject's physiognomy and attire. The artist's command of the human form, skin tone, and the textures of apparel were readily apparent. Barkley Hendricks had certainly earned his reputation for exceptional realism, for which he was then most widely recognized. Yet I found even more compelling the artist's ability to reveal the subject's mood, character, and personality through posture, gesture, and expression. With each detail and nuance Hendricks projects his subject's humanity and engenders a feeling of intimacy that is a hallmark of his art.
The feeling of intimacy is achieved, in part, through portraiture in life-size proportions. His subjects are neither diminutive nor larger-than life. This scale has a profound effect that cannot be replicated on the printed page, for it establishes a spatial relationship of parity with no physical barriers between the subject and viewer. This convention and the eye contact it fosters facilitate an intimate moment in which one is permitted to explore the reality of another human being, if only as expressed through paint on canvas. One might even experience a sense of discomfort when approaching too close while examining the vivid details or the artist's technique, for doing so may seem an intrusion into another's personal space.
The subjects of Hendricks' portraits are generally people from the community who one might see on the street but not really see. Unlike his conte figure drawings, which are specific yet anonymous, his portraits are depictions of identifiable people. With precise attention to their clothing, Hendricks places his subjects within specific timeframes. He celebrates their uniqueness while simultaneously emphasizing their common humanity.
Through his portraiture, Hendricks is the contemporary counterpart of a West African griot who documents, preserves, and visually articulates the history of his people. He tells biographical stories of these people, emphasizing both their individuality and their collective identity within a culture and heritage. His portraits of young Black Americans celebrate their innate beauty, dignity, creativity, and style. He reveals their infinite complexity and diversity while avoiding propagandistic sentimentality. Often placed on a solid color background, his subjects alone provide all the information necessary to create an impression of who they are and what they are about.
In Vendetta, Hendricks paints the portrait a Black woman wearing a white top with the word "bitch" across her chest. A dancer, the subject is represented as clearly in control of her body, in control of the situation, and in control of her life. Her hands-on-hips posture, demeanor, and expression proclaim that she is a strong, independent, confident, resolute, assertive woman, and if that means being a "bitch" then so be it. As exemplified in Vendetta and New Orleans Niggah, and in his beautifully conceived and executed nude drawings and portraits, Hendricks is unmoved by the sensibilities of those who would censor his creative expression. He does not allow others to influence either the subjects or the titles of his work. Hendricks refuses to subvert his meaning or embrace standards that are antithetical to his experience and understanding. For him, the word "Niggah" is not necessarily synonymous with the derisive use of the "N-word," for it has been employed by some within the Black community as a term of endearment or as an expression of style. But for the censors, such terminology may be considered absolutely verboten, and exclusion of "inappropriate" works from exhibitions and publications has been a consequence. Hendricks has paid a price for his defiance, but to be true to himself, his subjects, and his art, it is a price he has proven willing to pay.
As with his selection of subjects and titles, Hendricks' portraits provide us opportunities to both develop and question first impressions. He invites us to look more closely and carefully - to delve below the surface and explore his subjects' psyches. He challenges us to explore our own reactions to the people whose portraits he paints. Why do I perceive them as I do? How do we differ; how are we the same? What are they thinking and why? What can we do together to make our lives better? By stimulating such questions, Hendricks encourages our active involvement in the viewing experience. In considering and formulating answers we participate in the creative process, while honing our own powers of observation and empathy - powers that can serve us throughout the course of a lifetime.
Hendricks focuses not only on people, but also on places. His landscape paintings can be appreciated as celebrations of the beauty of creation or as warnings of what is being endangered and lost. Equally appropriate, his landscapes can be viewed as environments in which to escape from the complications of life, as places in which to find solitude and inspiration from nature unsullied by human depredation. By utilizing round canvases for small landscapes, Hendricks evokes the imagery of portholes and voyages to pristine harbors in which to refresh and renew. These portholes are portals to places of natural beauty and serenity. Hendricks opens these portals so that we can project ourselves into the environments and let our minds wonder through the spaces and make them our own.
Like his portraits of people, these landscapes are intimate and inviting. Even his more panoramic landscapes on oval canvases seem familiar rather than monumental. Unlike his portraits, his landscapes are idealized. Bathed in the warm glow of sunlight, the forests, beaches, and meadows are beacons calling us to cast aside our troubles and come to abide in them. There is no sense of hazard or potential danger lurking within these environs-no fierce animals, lime-disease-laden ticks or other irritants that might inhabit the state-of-nature and despoil our pleasures there. As with his portraits, Hendricks stimulates the viewer to participate in the creative process, to imagine and visualize the experience and the comfort of being there.
More recently, Hendricks has created still-life paintings that challenge the viewer to even greater contemplative involvement in their analysis. Are they chronicles of some clearly remembered yet not fully comprehended dreams? Could "Realist Rorschach" be Hendricks' contribution to the psychoanalytic arts? In the final analysis, any meaning of these works conceived by the artist may be less important than that created by the energized imagination of the viewer. Even if devoid of any "meaning," Hendricks' still-life paintings have stunning aesthetic appeal, for their compositions, juxtapositions, and colors are remarkable and compelling. Long ago Barkley Hendricks embraced the admonition commonly given to artists of every stripe, to do what you know-to draw from experience. Hendricks' art is drawn from his experience of people, places, and things that are important to him. He has a lifetime of experience closely observing, and developing skills with which to render his vision. Hendricks shares his experience through his art, making it real for us and encouraging us to participate. In the process, the Barkley L. Hendricks experience becomes an intimate one that is uniquely our own.
About the author
Floyd R. Thomas, Jr. received his Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Kansas. He is currently the Curator of Art and Chief of the Curatorial/Exhibitions Division at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, where he has been on staff for 13 years. Thomas previously served as Senior Historian at the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka.
Please see our illustrated article The Barkley L. Hendricks Experience (3/17/01)
Read more about the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11
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