A BIT OF SELF REFLECTION
The National Portrait Gallery is to feature Michael Jackson
A new exhibition shows us the man in the mirror
The National Portrait Gallery in London has the largest collection of portraiture in the world. Traditionally they show exhibitions of portraits by bigname artists like Picasso, Leonardo, Rembrandt and Lucian Freud, or they follow particular themes like Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. But every now and then they compile an exhibition of portraits of an age-defining icon like Audrey Hepburn (2015).
Next week, to coincide with what would have been his 60th birthday, the gallery will explore the influence of Michael Jackson on some leading names in contemporary art, spanning several generations of artists.
The gallery says the reason for the choice is Jackson’s place in the cultural canon as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. The gallery’s website blurb states: “His significance is widely acknowledged when it comes to music, music videos, dance, choreography and fashion, but his considerable influence on contemporary art is an untold story.”
Jackson was constantly in the media’s mirror. He reflected an ever-transforming image of rapidly changing society. Prefiguring the selfie age, he was obsessed with his reflection, altering it almost beyond recognition to make it more acceptable to himself — in an attempt to become the intangible, perfect, fantastical and transformative image of the self he could never accept. He straddled black and white identities, adult and child ones, and the male and female dichotomy. As art critic Sam Leith puts it: “He performed an aggressive crotchgrabbing parody of male sexual aggression, but he sang like a girl and looked like an alien.” And in his essay on Jackson, John Jeremiah Sullivan writes: “His physical body is arguably, even inarguably, the single greatest piece of postmodern American sculpture.”
Says Leith: “What about him doesn’t beg to be turned into art (or, more precisely, turned into art again)? The looks! A tilt of the hat; a single glove; the angle of a pair of shoes; the slash of black across a red jacket; the Ray-Ban aviators above a scarf pulled over the nose; the eyes on Mark Ryden’s painted sleeve for Dangerous; the bare silhouette of his Thriller-era hairdo; the blaze of his white socks on the LP sleeve of Off The Wall; even, by the end, the savage scare-quotes of his nostrils — a whole series of visual gestures make an unmistakable shorthand.”
But like the many iterations of his image produced by the more than 40 artists including Andy Warhol, Maggi Hambling, Gary Hume, David LaChapelle and Grayson Perry, Jackson’s was a fractured persona who spent a good chunk of his wealth amassing commissioned paintings of himself — perhaps in an effort to be in control of his own likeness.
In the end though, his image, as perfect or imperfect as he saw himself, is sullied by questions of his sexual behaviour. To disregard this aspect, reminds Leith, is to miss so much about the narrative frames: “the abused child; the abused and likely abusing man; the media creation and the media self-creation — that make him so interesting”, both as cultural icon and as post-modern artwork. LS
Michael Jackson: On the Wall runs from June 28 to October 21 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Thereafter the exhibition will tour to The Grand Palais, Paris (November 2018 to February 2019), The Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn (March to July 2019) and Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Finland (August to November 2019)