Art Review: Michael Jackson: On the Wall, National Portrait Gallery ‘A Gloriously Political Surprise’

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I admit I had my reservations about this exhibition. An art show based around the King of Pop?? I feared the worst. I feared the kind of wall to wall narcissistic god complex paintings that had dominated MJ’s famous Neverland ranch – MJ at The Last Supper, MJ as the fallen Christ-like figure, MJ as some kind of modern Francis of Assisi, surrounded by the animals…

And, yes, I suppose there is a little bit of that here but don’t fall into my mistake of thinking that is solely what’s on offer for what dominates this show are the voices of African American artists inspired by the man and his impact on society to use his work and his iconic image to explore issues of racism and the struggle of being a black artist in a white-dominated world.

And the result is, dare I say it, a thrilling exhibition that is pumped with verve, energy and the legacy of a man who – when at his best – could not even be matched, let alone beaten.

You walk into the hallway that spans the length of this exhibition. Look left, and Mark Ryden’s artwork for the Dangerous album, dense in detail and references, stares you down; look right, and there is a video playing on loop – Working Day and Night is coming out the speakers and the screen is filled with a close-up of a pair of breasts bouncing around to the beat.

And, right there, that entrance sums up the two parts of this show.

The video comes courtesy of Susan Smith-Pinelo and it is a gloriously political work that highlights the sexualisation of black women and the challenges she faces on being taken seriously as an artist. Slung around her neck is one of those gold chains, here with ‘ghetto’ spelt out, its implication clear, and the choice of song a cutting reference to how hard black women need to work to be taken half as seriously as their white counterparts. Add to that the assumed sexual availability that is inferred from the prominence of her cleavage and this goes someway to explaining why this piece was my favourite artwork in the show. Sensational.

Another piece I loved was David Hammons’s installation, Which Mike Do You Want to Be Like…, of three microphones in the centre of a room representing Jackson, Tyson and Jordan. Together it’s a sardonic comment on the options black men have to succeed in the USA, But, from another angle, (the microphones are too high to be effectively used by any one) it’s a depressing take on the level of success that has to be achieved by Black men to get even a smidgeon of respect.

The great man is not just a vehicle in this exhibition, a puppet for other artists. Video footage from his Dangerous world tour that runs in one of the smaller rooms, for example, is a testament to his magnificent brilliance. But smart analysis of the details shows the extent to which MJ constructed himself as an icon, studying those who went before him and developing an instantly familiar image to establish himself as the greatest ever.

The white glove, the militaristic clothes, the shorter trousers to draw audience attention to his dancing and footwork… Even his face, surgically altered as it was, only enhanced the legend. And a great example of that is one of Michael’s bespoke jackets by Michael Lee Bush that shows the extent to which MJ stick to the image more than what was in fashion at the time.

The need to build himself up as a legend meant everything.

And it’s this link between MJ and those legends who went before him that fascinates some of the artists here. How, in some ways, MJ carried down the path already laid out by the stars who went before him – a subject explored by Warhol and artists blending MJ with Sinatra – and yet how the colour of his skin made Michael a very noticeable break in that line of legends, which Lorraine O’Grady infers in her series of portraits comparing and contrasting Michael with Baudelaire.

So, it was these works that caught my attention undeniably – and I can’t deny that I gave a little eye roll as I passed the LaChapelle photos of MJ as a fallen Christ like figure in a modern Pieta or MJ as a winged angel trouncing a red-horned devil – but it really does speak volumes that the artwork which most people remained in front of the longest was the footage of Michael’s live performance. Simply, the man can’t be beaten, even after all these years.

National Portrait Gallery, London, to October 21, 2018.
Admission from £15.50.

Image credits:
1 An illuminating Path by David LaChapelle 1998. Courtesy of the artist © David LaChapelle
2 Michael Jackson by Andy Warhol 1984. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC / Gift of Time magazine © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London
3 Thriller (Black and White) by Graham Dolphin 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
4 Michael Jackson’s ‘dinner jacket’ by Michael Lee Bush. Date unknown. Courtesy of John Branca Image 9c) Julien’s Auctions / Summer Evans

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