The Na­tional Por­trait Gallery is to fea­ture Michael Jack­son

Sunday Times - - Contents - WORDS BY An­drea Nagel

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)

PIC­TURE Gallo/Getty

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