Times Standard (Eureka)
Pioneering painter Mike Henderson's art rises in new UC Davis show
His works were destroyed in a studio fire. Many more paintings were long believed lost until their improbable discovery just two years ago. The story of vanguard Black artist and UC Davis professor emeritus Mike Henderson's surviving works would be compelling on its own.
But “Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985,” opening publicly on Monday at Manetti Shrem Museum of Art on the University of California, Davis, campus — Henderson's first U.S. solo exhibit in 20 years and five years in the making — takes that story further. Henderson's new show featuring the recovered works places his creative sweep on full display: his large-format “protest paintings”; his experimental films. A slideshow presents works too damaged to display in their original state.
The Henderson survey is “the most important collection in our history,” said Rachel Teagle, Manetti Shrem founding director. “It is the largest we have ever undertaken, the most impressive we've ever achieved.”
The exhibit will run through June 25 at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, 254 Old Davis Road, Davis. Admission is free.
The university and museum gathered a “constellation of experts” during the five-year project, Teagle said. Henderson was intimately involved in restoring and revitalizing the works damaged in the devastating 1985 blaze at his San Francisco studio, as well as the once-lost works Henderson salvaged from a storage container in 2021.
Black cultural scholars, art historians and curators from across the country will discuss the works in public events over the exhibit's opening weeks, including the artist himself in a 3:30 p.m. Sunday conversation with UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May at the museum. On campus, UC Davis academics and Black scholars held faculty seminars to discuss his work, present new scholarship, and reassert his overdue place in the larger canon.
Henderson, 79, was UC Davis' first Black art professor when he joined the faculty in 1970. He taught alongside other UC Davis luminaries of the era including William T. Wiley and Wayne Thiebaud. For 43 years, until his retirement in 2012, he made his UC Davis studio “a place of shelter for artists of color.” He continues his work today in the Bay Area.
The exhibition's mission: to “give Henderson's work the showcase and scholarly attention it so richly deserves,” Teagle said in notes ahead of the exhibit, “With this exhibition, the museum fulfills one of its highest purposes: to recuperate the art of a major California artist who is central to UC Davis' legacy.”
Henderson channeled his rage at the era's racial injustices into unflinching largeformat commentary and experimental short films. He also explored surrealism and Afro-futurist themes.
“He said he feels like a scientist of the world around him. He said art has to be deeply involved in the world around us. Mike doesn't propose solutions or answers,” Teagle said. “His work is intentionally provocative, intentionally full of rage .... He was questioning authority at many levels. These are challenging images.”
That rage at racism and institutional injustice, the anti-Black violence chronicled in “Non-Violence” (1967); and powerfully expressed in the provocative “Love it or Leave it, I Will Love it if You Leave it,” (1976), kindled the flame of his art. The scientist as artist found fuel all around him.
The themes Henderson first explored as a Black man and artist navigating 1960's Northern California remain painfully resonant and relevant more than a half-century later: Anti-Black hate is on the rise. The nation's racial reckoning has led to frustratingly little systemic change. Voting rights are in peril. Police violence is again at a flash point.
Henderson, 79, was UC Davis' first Black art professor when he joined the faculty in 1970.