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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: Michael Jackson: On the Wall at The National Portrait Gallery

    The Michael Jackson: On the Wall exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is the first exhibition of its kind to focus on the erstwhile ‘King of Pop’ and commemorates his sixtieth birthday on 29 August 2018 - if he’d been alive. The introduction states: ‘This exhibition is not about Jackson’s biography or memorabilia related to the singer. It explores the impact of Jackson on contemporary art.’

    The exhibition consists of over one hundred works. The rooms here are given numbers and names. For instance ABC to P.Y.T (plus E.T.) contains works which look at his early career. Who’s Bad considers his influence as the first African-American recording mega-star, and an activist.

    There are works by Keith Haring, Kahinde Wiley (notable for his recent portrait of Barack Obama), Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Andy Warhol and David LaChapelle with his striking photograph ‘An Illuminating Path’, recreating a scene from Jackson’s Billie Jean video when he dances along a lit up path. What is missing is Jeff Koons' sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles which would have added some sparkle and kudos. The sculpture, made from gilded porcelain, is too fragile to travel apparently. We’re given a photograph of it by Louise Lawler instead.

    A criticism is that the exhibition juxtaposes artworks of different styles and eras, giving it a muddled feel. Some of the pieces are new, especially commissioned for the exhibition, like Dara Birnbaum’s ‘The Way you make me Feel’ where Jackson is recognizable by his silhouette. Some of the works (collages) are under par.

    Highlights include Kahinde Wiley’s majestic ‘Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II' (2010) commissioned by Jackson himself. In a subversive take on Rubens’ original, Jackson is represented on horseback, instead of King Philip.

    A leather jacket decorated with miniature forks, spoons and knives, designed by Michael Lee Bush is sure to delight his fans. Jackson would wear it when he was entertaining at his Neverland Ranch. ‘The King of Pop’, a spectacular painting by Mark Ryden featured on the artwork for his Dangerous album, is also on display. Ryden cites Hieronymous Bosch, Ingres and Cecil Beaton as his sources for this complex and stylized work, depicting Jackson’s mind as an amusement park.  

    The display touches on some of the more troubling aspects of his life. A diptych ‘2300 Jackson Street’ by Rodney McMillian has a high definition photograph of his childhood 2-bedroom family home in Gary, Indiana next to a sheet of paper with the lyrics of Heigh Ho, it’s off to work we go from Snow white and the Seven dwarfs. This reflects how he and his siblings were pressured to rehearse and perform as a musical group by their father.

    Jackson’s transformation from a highly fabricated and refined individual to an otherworldly creature in later life ̶ race-less, genderless, ageless ̶ is documented. Gary Hume’s ‘Michael’ 2001 captures his increasingly altered appearance. Maggi Hambling’s portrait depicts a vulnerable looking Jackson during his misconduct trial in 2005. He was cleared of all charges. Critics have said that the exhibition doesn’t focus enough on the controversy surrounding his later years but these powerful works certainly add a disquieting note to the display.   

    These individual portraits, focusing on different aspects of Jackson’s life, build up to a bigger picture of him, a flawed genius. Lorraine’s O’Grady’s diptychs draw a comparison between him and the French poet, Baudelaire, in terms of their pursuit of perfection in their respective art. O’Grady uses images from equivalent stages of their careers and they wear similar poses. 

    The exhibition also probes the way Jackson’s music makes us feel. Video footage from ‘An Audience’ 2001 by Rodney McMillian films Jackson’s ecstatic fans during his 30th Anniversary concert. Some of his fans reportedly fainted when he appeared on stage.

    Most enjoyable is Candice Breitz’s video installation ‘King’ 2005. Breitz recruits 16 ‘sincere and ardent’ Jackson fans from Germany to each recreate and perform tracks from Thriller. Their freestyle a capella interpretations of Jackson’s music are displayed side by side on 16 flat screens. It’s clear that they’re absorbed in their performances. Breitz says she is ‘interested in the biographical dimension of pop, the way that it can become the soundtrack to a life’. 

    The remembrances of Jackson by the various artists often make for poignant reading. Rita Ackerman says ‘his look served the way he danced, which was unlike anyone else - defying gravity, like walking on water. His melodies were built from his body and his supernatural gifts. The language he uses is so simple and sharp. All artists should strive for that kind of perfection. ’ This subtle and understated exhibition seeks to bring him back to life in our minds. It certainly takes the National Portrait Gallery in a new direction, attracting a younger and more diverse audience.


    Ends 21 October 2018


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