Birth of the Cool, Barkley L. Hendricks's retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem is a visual and sociological treat. The show includes Hendricks's larger than life, life-size portraits from the '60s and '70s. Featuring stylishly dressed figures, depicted alone, with multiple views (Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris), or with a companion, they are monumental and heroic; their marvelously individualized, expressive faces confront the viewer with steely gazes that convey attitude with a capital "A." Painted in the decade of, and the decade just after, the Civil Rights Movement, these are triumphant "Black is Beautiful" testaments.
Hendricks renders the figures in luscious oil, which pops against the monochromatic backgrounds made even more flat through the use of acrylic paint. In some works he uses gold leaf (Lawdy Mama) creating icon-like paintings. Hendricks has a great sense of color, and time and again he makes terrific choices of hues that complement one another in unexpected ways, as in the apricot-on-apricot with splash of magenta North Philly Niggah. Pattern, too, is something he has an affinity for, using a light touch to great effect. The rug, skirt and wall provide a wonderful visual cacophony in the delicious Sweet Thang, Lynn Jenkins, where the subject reclines on a couch blowing a bubble as she sizes up the viewer with her gimlet eye.
Enamored of fashion, Hendricks lovingly depicts the distinctive accessories worn by his models. He doesn't overdo it; there's just enough to enhance the figure, not overwhelm it. But it's fun to drink in all the "hip 'n happenin" '70s styles. Just look at Brenda P with her wide-leg pants, platform sandals and insect-eye glasses, or his own self-portrait, Slick. In white suit and crocheted scull cap he looks the epitome of smooth, urban chic. Included are a number of nude self-portraits that explore black machismo stereotypes with a touch of humor. Misc Tyrone may be my favorite painting here. I love how the figure occupies the space, the implied motion, the pink background and the probing look on his face. I also love JSB III with his fierce expression and scarlet background.
Less successful are Hendricks's more recent Jamaican landscapes painted en plein air, which are round, oval or arch-shaped in gilded frames. The accompanying literature suggests this is Hendricks's nod to the Renaissance, but to me it just made the already pretty saccharin vistas cloying. I think they’d look far better unframed or in contemporary frames. I also wasn't a fan of the show's most recent portrait, Fela, Amen, Amen, Amen from 2002 that depicts the Afrobeat pop star. In front of the painting are 27 pairs of ladies' shoes (symbolizing the women Fela married in a group ceremony) hand-painted by Hendricks. It's his attempt to add a contemporary edge, but it doesn't work. The shoes are a distraction, the figure and background, overly detailed. Hendricks does better when he keeps it simple. It's a deceptive simplicity that packs a punch.
Artillery 3.3 (2009): 38