Kehinde Wiley in front of his painting, Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II, 2009. Photograph by Jorge Herrera
The final commissioned portrait of Michael Jackson by the artist Kehinde Wiley is to go on public display for the first time in the UK in a major new exhibition, Michael Jackson: On the Wall, opening at the National Portrait Gallery, London this week.
The exhibition, which explores the influence of Michael Jackson on some of the leading names in contemporary art, also includes 11 new works made specifically for the exhibition by contemporary artists including Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Dara Birnbaum, Michael Craig-Martin, Graham Dolphin, Yan Pei Ming and Donald Urquhart.
Other works going on display for the first time in the UK include American artist and activist Faith Ringgold’s story quilt Who’s Bad? – a series of collages by Isaac Julien made in 1984 and Jackson’s “dinner jacket” covered with forks, spoons and knives made by costume designer Michael Lee Bush. Keith Haring’s pop-graffiti style portrait of Michael Jackson will also be exhibited for the first time in thirty years.
Curated by Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Michael Jackson: On the Wall examines how Michael Jackson has inspired some of the leading names in contemporary art, spanning several generations of artists across all media. Michael Jackson is one of the most influential cultural figures to come out of the 20th century and his legacy continues into the 21st. His significance is widely acknowledged when it comes to music, music videos, dance, choreography and fashion, but his influence on contemporary art is an untold story.
Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Michael Jackson, Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson), 2010, is the final commissioned portrait of Jackson, begun months before Jackson died and finished posthumously. The artist described collaborating with Jackson on the work as “extraordinary. His knowledge of art and art history was much more in-depth than I had imagined. He was talking about the difference between early and late Rubens’ brushwork. … One of the things we talked about was how clothing functions as armour. And if you look at the painting, he’s on horseback in full body armour.”
Wiley is known for his portraits of contemporary black sitters that draw on the visual vocabulary of European art history to question stereotypes about identity and representation. He was selected to paint the official portrait of former US President Barack Obama, which was unveiled at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington in February 2018.
New works created especially for the exhibition include a line drawing by artist Michael Craig-Martin, based on the image used for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in April 1971. Jackson was only 11 years old and the youngest person to ever be featured on the magazine cover.
The portrait was completed in June 2018, just two weeks before the opening of the exhibition. Describing the work Michael Craig-Martin said: “This is an image of Michael Jackson as a child, already famous as a brilliant singer and performer, a beautiful little boy, unambiguously black, a child star, but a child whose subsequent life would become a sad and hopeless search for the childhood he never experienced.”
As We See You: Dreams of Jand, 2017 by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, also made for the exhibition, fuses collage, photo transfers, drawing and painting to depict an imaginary interior of a Nigerian home. Akunyili Crosby explains: “The piece is a snapshot of how we saw, consumed and revered images of things from Western culture – we aspired to be Michael Jackson. And that aspiration seemed, for the first time, to be within the realm of possibility: previously, all the international icons we’d known were white British or American stars. Therefore, MJ was particularly special because he was as cool – if not cooler – than the others and he was black!”
Artist Graham Dolphin has also created two new works, Thriller x 20 and Off the Wall x 25. Part of an ongoing series of works by Dolphin, they are based on Michael Jackson album covers, which explore issues of fandom and idolatry. Using multiple copies of Thriller and Off the Wall as his canvas, the artist works directly onto their surfaces. Each cover is drawn over in small, handwritten text containing the complete lyrics of Jackson’s songbook.
Other new works created for the exhibition include A Michael Jackson Alphabet by British artist, Donald Urquhart charting some of the key moments in Jackson’s life and career; Dara Birnbaum’s The Way You Make Me Feel comprised of stills taken from Michael Jackson’s short film for his song of the same name and Yan Pei Ming’s large-scale painting In Memory of Michel Jackson based on a photograph from the early 1980s.
Michael Jackson: On the Wall runs until 21 October 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.
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