Jacksonmania Goes Highbrow at the National Portrait Gallery

Detail of Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II by Kehinde Wiley (National Portrait Gallery, London)
A show that’s both fun and substantive shows the pop star’s continuing influence.

Regardless of your engagement in pop culture — mine has often verged on nil — you had to be obtuse not to feel Michael Jackson’s presence. Jackson (1958—2009) was always there, on magazine covers, in the news during his child-abuse trial, his puzzling marriage to Elvis Presley’s daughter, and his drug-infused death, and as a ball-of-fire performer from the 1960s through the 1980s. His bouncy style and music grew serious and pungent and his life more bizarre. The National Portrait Gallery in London has organized a show about Jackson and his impact on artists. When I’m in London, I always try to visit the NPG, or, more precisely, visit the acquaintances who might be dead but still live visually and, at times, emotively on its walls. It’s a wonderful art museum, but it’s great at history and storytelling, too.

One of of the impressive strengths of Michael Jackson: On the Walls is the empowerment of the artist’s voice. It’s good to hear the artist of a work, such as Glenn Ligon, whose Self-Portrait at Seven Years Old is in the show, explain why he became so enthralled with Jackson that he became part of how Ligon saw himself in the world. Jackson as a child and young man was, Ligon and others felt, an agent of change in African-American identity. He was innocent, precocious, and assertive, fresh and famous, hugely successful and rich, a magnetic charmer, and ubiquitous.

Hank Willis Thomas took a 1984 photograph of Jackson, good looking, confident, straightforward, and seemingly grounded, and aged his features to imagine how he’d mature by 2000, assuming Jackson hadn’t, as Thomas wrote, “turned into a monster of all of our perversions projected on to him.” The real Jackson, by then, was known as much for plastic surgery, skin whitening, and a creepy, clandestine lifestyle that always managed to find a way to the front page. While I dispute the artist’s denial of agency to Jackson, it’s potent stuff. What Thomas described as “the hopes for his bright and happy future” still ahead of him weren’t so much Jackson’s hopes but the hopes his fans invested in him. Gary Hume’s 2001 portrait of Jackson is a good comparison. It’s glossy paint on aluminum so it has a cold metallic look. It’s life-size, stripped down to essentials, and both a fair appraisal and a scary one.

I think the NPG could have pitched its interpretation higher. Kehinde Wiley’s Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson) was commissioned by Jackson in 2007 but finished the year after he died. Wiley’s comments — the thrust of the label — had a big dollop of celebrity worship. Jackson and he worked closely on developing the art-history references that are among Wiley’s specialties. I’m curious about what Jackson’s desired iconography was, because it would show his sense of self at the time he died. The crowd could handle the not-so-heavy intellectual lift. It’s uncharitable to assume they couldn’t. It’s a grand painting, nicely installed in a chapel-like niche.

When the show does pitch high, it gets muddled, and fast. Issac Julien is a good artist, and his collages in the show are fine. This wall text is mostly a quote from him:

I think that the artist Lorraine O’Grady got it right when she juxtaposes his [Jackson’s] image with that of Baudelaire. What first drew me to him is what Barthes calls “the grain of the voice” and his sublime choreography — he was the embodiment of the best of the signifying practices of African-American culture.

I challenge my readers to tell me what this means because I can’t figure it out.

There are many moments when I furrowed my brow, read text over and over, studied the art to see if the interpretation and the object existed in that state of respect and simpatico we like, and decided that no such state existed. Then there were the moments I simply sighed, as here: “As the most recognizable black body on the planet, Jackson becomes a global surrogate for the legacy of post colonialism.”

A video of Jackson’s performance in Bucharest in 1992 is great to watch if only for the crowd’s wild response to Jackson’s impressive music and moves. “Jacksonmania was a mass-psychosis that was touching a wide social spectrum,” the video artist says. I think this crowd, just post-Communism and post–Iron Curtain, might have responded with the same ravenous frenzy at a Judy Garland concert, were she alive. Still, it’s a spot in the show where we see Jackson perform. He’s pretty fabulous.

Artists compare him to Rosa Parks, Willie Mandela, and Martin Luther King; but Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles make more sense. As for himself, Jackson wasn’t exactly stumped for parallels, Peter Pan, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Disney among them. He’s “doubled, divided, mirrored, and multiplied,” as the show tells us, an Everyman into whom every bit of human yearning could ooze and then find a moon walking, lip-syncing embodiment. On cue, there’s Jeff Koons and his porcelain sculpture of Jackson and his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles. There’s some amateur psychology defining Jackson as “a beautiful little boy, unambiguously black, a child star, but a child whose subsequent life would become a sad and hopeless search for a childhood he never experienced.” Color me skeptical. No one that rich, talented, and disciplined is a casual bystander in his own life story.

Eventually, the show gets serious, substantive, and on solid footing. David LaChapelle’s American Jesus triptych is a good examination of how celebrity culture eats its own and is one of the few works in the show treating Jackson’s trial on charges of child molestation in 2005. The charges stemmed from Martin Bashir’s 2003 Granada Television documentary on Jackson. The film, which showed Jackson routinely sharing beds with young children, caused a furor. Jackson’s Neverland home was part nest, part Eden, part amusement park, and a sinister fairyland. The Neverland project, the documentary, the trial, and the art coming from the trial, at which Jackson was acquitted, would make a good, focused show.

For all the jargon, celebrity worship, name dropping, and armchair psychiatry, there’s lots more meat. The section of Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol was well done. It’s a nice balance of intellectual heft, focus, and glitz and might have served as the nucleus of a show examining these two figures alone. Jackson was at his height of renown and achievement in the 1980s while Warhol was a freaky philosopher and sage, an idiot savant who lived long enough to see culture reap what it sowed in the 1960s. Elizabeth Taylor was another juxtaposition that works well against Jackson. She’s there, via Catherine Opie’s 2011 portfolio of photographs of Taylor’s home in Los Angeles.

The show ends with an engaging 2005 video installation by Candice Breitz. She assembled sixteen “sincere and ardent Jackson fans” in Germany, all young. Each fan recorded on film, a capella in a sound studio, Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller, dressing and performing however he or she wanted. The video and recordings were collated into 16 side-by-side films to form a “portrait” of Jackson through his fans. It’s fun to watch. Some are geeky, some try too hard to look cool, some are a quivering mound of ice cubes. They seemed German enough to me, making my own stereotypes part of the art. I think a juxtaposition of the Germans against, say, young fans from America or Japan or a country in Africa may or may not prove instructive. Do they respond differently, and why?

The catalogue is good. Once I got past the proposed similarities of Jackson and the French poet Charles Baudelaire, as preposterous a lineage as one can imagine, I enjoyed its vinegary takes on its subject. Like every museum in Britain, the NPG is working to broaden its audience, especially its paying audience. It’s not a bad idea — it’s reality. I’d build on its brand — quality, focus, smart, clear interpretation, making connections between past and present — and do more shows with themes like Michael Jackson.

Next week I’ll write on the new Frankenstein show at the Morgan Library. It’s the novel’s 200th anniversary, and it’s Halloween.


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