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Barkley L. Hendricks is well known for creating life-size oil paintings of mostly black American subjects from northeastern cities, but his practice involves much more than that. For nearly 50 years, Hendricks has worked across different media, from painting and drawing to photography and fashion, to capture the essence and likeness of friends, family members, and acquaintances whose style or manner caught his eye and imagination.
Many of his most famous images feature African Americans, a gesture that in itself can be considered radical within a predominantly white, western art historical context. But political agitation or rewriting history isn’t necessarily the artist’s first impulse. Last month, I spoke with Hendricks to learn more about the roots of his work and practice, and his new exhibition of paintings at Jack Shainman Gallery.
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Lee Ann Norman: You’ve been working as an artist for quite some time now, but most people who know your work are familiar with the iconic images of mostly black and brown people in urban settings. Your show at Jack Shainman features a new body of these paintings. What inspired you to return, in a sense, to portrait painting, since you’ve also worked a lot in photography and fashion, and have painted landscapes?
Barkley L. Hendricks: Well, I paint and make art because I like doing it; that’s always the motivating factor. I’ve created a variety of imagery over the years — figurative painting, photography, fashion portfolios. The subject matter I’m involved with, though, has always been seen as suspect, given the screwed up culture we live in. I’m not sure how you are with other artists, but generally, how many white artists get asked about how their whiteness plays into their work? I didn’t [start to] paint or take photographs because I was black. We have a lot of work to do [in the art world] — black, white, yellow, red — all of us. How we go about that work is another issue, but that’s where you, as a critic, come in.
LAN: Critics have a lot of power in how we interpret and translate the meaning of artwork. So tell me about some of your influences, or how you think and go about making your work.
BLH: Do you know where hipness comes from? [Hipness] meaning “in the know” ?
LAN: I think it was in relation to jazz musicians — their slang, right?
BLH: Well, yes, but its origins come from more than that. Let me give you an example. My connection to photography goes all the way back to Yale. By the time I got there, I had a full dose of professional study with photographers like Walker Evans. Back then, I spent more time with photographers in basement labs than I ever did with painters. The education I got from them was important.
When I was at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, there was a painting class that I never missed with Ted Siegal. I gained a lot of knowledge about paint as material, and I use it all the time. For example, in this exhibition, I wanted to make something that was white on white, and if you use oil, the paint will yellow a bit over time. Acrylic has a plastic base, so it won’t yellow as fast. I wanted these white-on-white images to yellow less. Other examples of this [learning] are scattered throughout the show. In a painting, I might have one area in acrylic, and then use oil in another. One piece has copper leaf and variegation in it. When I first started experimenting with gold leaf, it was an experience. (Laughs.) No one knew how to use it, so I had to do my homework and figure out how to lay it and work with it on canvas since it’s mostly been used on the rigid surfaces like board or glass and is usually associated with Greek and Roman icons.
LAN: Over the years, you’ve been quietly making images that many critics and historians have said inspired younger artists who are also working with black figuration and representation in art. Some of them, like Kehinde Wiley, are very clear that they see their images serving as correctives to the canon, so they carry the weight of politics. Do you see your images functioning in that way, or do you see yourself that way?
BLH: Given the fucked-up-ness of American culture, we can say that everything [I’ve made] is political, but that’s not the case. My painting “Lawdy Mama” (1969) is a good example. Critics and writers likened her to Kathleen Cleaver [activist and wife of Black Panther Party (BPP) member Eldridge Cleaver], but the woman who posed for that painting is my cousin. It had nothing to do with the Black Power movement. I get irritated by this. Sometimes critics think they know more than the artist, but my images speak to many areas of culture. When I was at Yale, I made a series of works called Michael BPP. I knew him when he was a Panther, but also when he left — his attire completely changed. I made three paintings of him in total. That connection he had to the BPP did not color my whole representation of him.
I can understand the reasons why artists might be motivated to correct art history, or make a political statement, but I also think about stupid shit that happens. I paint people, black and white, who I like and who want to pose for me. There are actually quite a few white people who want to pose, but can’t due to timing. I’ve resorted to photography now to overcome some of that. I keep using “white” and “black” but that’s because we’ve set up this situation where using those terms as descriptors has become part of the dialogue. I have a whole mess of what I call “Pretty Little White Girls with Dreads.” (Laughs.) Mind you, I have black girls too — I don’t discriminate [based on race]. I understand young artists and their motivation, as long as they do their homework.
LAN: After this exhibition, what’s next for you? More paintings? Photography? Landscapes? Jamaica?
BLH: Of course, I will continue with these works and continue going back to the Caribbean as much as I can — cold weather sucks. (Laughs.)