Barkley Hendricks and The Uncanny

As one of the very few African American figurative artist of the late 20th to early/mid 21st century to have work shown in consistently in major art exhibitions (as well as being acquired by major art institutions), there is clearly no question that Barkley Hendricks makes art; however, despite the fact that Barkley Hendricks is a pioneer in 20th century American realism and conceptualist art, art critics and historians remain at a loss as to how to properly observe his intention in making art and remove assumption regarding the relationship of subjectivity and object-hood within contemporary African American portraiture.

Through his portraiture, Hendricks is the contemporary counterpart of a West African griot who documents, preserves, and visually articulates the history of his people. He tells biographical stories of these people, emphasizing both their individuality and their collective identity within a culture and heritage. His portraits of young Black Americans celebrate their innate beauty, dignity, creativity, and style. He reveals their infinite complexity and diversity while avoiding propagandistic sentimentality. Often placed on a solid color background, his subjects alone provide all the information necessary to create an impression of who they are and what they are about[1]

The broad appeal of his brand of realism for a post-modernist mindset no doubt has to do with its celebration of black vernacular, as in street fashion, urban athleticism, ghetto flaneurs, and other forms of an expressive black culture.” [2]- yet universality and impersonality are not what Barkley Hendricks utilizes hyperrealism for, nor is this what the genre of portraiture or the use of figuration intends to convey. Hendricks refuses to subvert the gestural meanings of his subjects or embrace standards that are antithetical to his personal experience and cultural understanding. The subjects that Hendricks decides to convey in his portraits are people that are first and foremost identifiable by name . Some of the individuals painted are even definitive of a relationship with Hendricks. Even though these may be individuals who one would see but not really “see” on the street, they are specific personalities; considering the precise detail and close attention to their clothing, the artist places his subjects within a specific timeframe-in order to celebrate their uniqueness and simultaneously emphasize their common humanity. Practically identical to the issue of Kantian beauty, instead of envisaging the aesthetic problem from the point of view of the artist Barkley Hendricks, post modern art critics and historians consider his art to be “beautiful” and “nuanced” through the generalized assumptions of what the 20th century was according to the 21st century American spectator; through knowledge based on a presumed understanding of a particular type of radical political and social change during a specific decade and the immortalization of this turbulent socio-political narrative in the personal identity of people (previously and continuously) radicalized as Black as well as a collective impersonal memory that insists on providing an aesthetic to politics.

When the aesthetic principles are utilized by an African American artists, post modern and contemporary art establishes the validity of a Black Aesthetic through a reference and acknowledgment of the capacity for Black to formally render shape and figure; although the creative expression of this identity acknowledges classical cliches, it ultimately decides to not conform to this particular vision. The “pre pictorial idea of Black” as a submissive and dismissive figure in political and artistic composition has certainly affected the ways in which the subject of being racially Black is presumed by 1)the black viewer 2) a viewer who can empathize with a historical narrative of colonized heritage and 3)the viewer who can only sympathize with the historical condition of oppression. Thus, the contemporary black creative is assumed, more or less, to only posses two possibilities to portray their radicalized minority identity-happiness and gratitude towards his liberated state or visceral anger at his oppressor.

Although the concept of a Black Aesthetic was formally established in the 20th century in order to give physical property to the irrepressible cultural vitality of African American identity, it was birthed as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade forcing the specificity of African autonomy to be replaced with vitality; with the formal emancipation of slaves, it was contextualized by African American intellectuals, artists, and politicians. Many aspects of a stylized barrier between African Americans and the the new social forces with which they would (have to) be forced to contend are not centrally concerned with creating a unitary system of norms for producing or evaluating artwork, but rather establishing black subjectivity within the context of European and American social and political ideals. The concept of a Black Aesthetic does not pick out the singular and unrealistic, all inclusive cultural monolith of “high art” versus “low art”, instead it denotes a collection of philosophical inquiries about the arts of the African Diaspora-or, the collection of life worlds created by and primarily identified with people radicalized as Black. Post Modern and Contemporary African American art establishes the political and cultural and philosophical validity of a ‘Black Aesthetic” based on African American tangible and intangible cultural heritage; this act of processing memory and gestural symbols was given further validation through the unique condition of American African identity expressed in distinctively African American cultural movements, as well as the implication of African art and design within Western Contemporary Art. The European and American use of African masks to distort and re contextualize their portrait composition, however, was considered to be more evident of existential thought and practice of self-reflection. W.E.B Du Bois, whose writings provided the fundamentals for the establishment of political and cultural black aesthetic principles, reflected on the dualism experienced by the average African American.

The Negro is gifted with second sight. African Americans are burdened by the peculiar sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others…between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question. Unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All nevertheless flutter [a]round it. They approach me in a half hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ they say, ‘I know an excellent colored man in my town..

Collective memory of late 20th century America-specifically 1960–1970- includes Martin Luther King, Black Panther Party, and urban afro-centric music, vernacular, and fashion. “ the mediation of memory, be it personal or cultural, still functions metaphorically.” These portraits function to reveal the inner complexity and diversity of young African Americans while actively avoiding the propagandistic sentimentality of aesthetic politics within collective memory As a result of prevailing ignorance and misrepresentation of African Americans and African American heritage however, many political and fashion symbols designated for African American empowerment have been effected by mass cultural reproduction, and a spectator will regard Hendrick’s intimate and sensitive portrayals of family, friends, and intriguing strangers with visual shock stemming from race based prejudice and immediate recognition but failure to understand certain symbols; essentially experiencing psycho-cultural overload that will be engaged subconsciously as “I don’t understand the cultural reference because I am different than them, but I am not uncultured because I am observing art, therefore I must be able to form an intelligent and cultured opinion on this unfamiliar subject.” Assuming that the initial strong sentiments to the painting are thought to be definitive of “connection to the subject” instead of an uncanny feeling of spatial parity, spectators continue to allow their misunderstanding to guide them through the composition, and settle with the myopic idea they have presumably formalized a complicated and thoughtful narrative of the racial identity of blackness based on the fact that the title is typically one based on African American Vernacular, they have observed a pictorial discourse in gender and sexuality simply when the figure is of an African American male nude with an athletic build or a young African American woman with an Afro, or experienced a meta-narrative of fashion and self realization of style. In actuality, the emotional dissonance from Hendrick’s painted subjects could not be more obvious with an aesthetic judgement initiated like this; the automatic assumption that black bodies should only be related to symbology of virility, iconoclasts, and youth is what Kant would call “pleasure without interest” [3] and Hendricks would wryly mention as “white myopic approach”[4]. Contrary to myopic belief, Hendricks freely manipulates the relationship his figures experience (between him and the viewer) through subject-object position; there is a distinction between “black” as an artist, “black” as an art subject, and “black” as a socio-cultural theme, or trope for postmodern theory and criticism. The distinction between racial blackness and black ethnicity clearly lies in the fact that historicism-although mindful of an irrepressible cultural vitality memorialized through a black aesthetic-is inclined to consider those of black African descent unable to possess the cultural capital-and even intellectual capacity- for and development of contemporary thought, and instead create large amounts of cultural reproductions- particularly in the case of African American cultural identity

“Lawdy Mama”(image 1), for example, is a picture consistently misinterpreted based on aesthetic assumption. A quarter length profile of a young woman dressed in a high collared, short sleeved black dress and frontally facing the viewer. Her right arm holds her left elbow in a relaxed but protective and shy way of reacting to having someone stare back at you. You do notice a slight frown of discomfort on her face as a result of being scrutinized as an artistic subject, but her leveled and casual self assured stare back at the viewer indicates she’s at ease during the painter’s process of staring back and forth.. The young woman in this portrait is consistently assumed to be Black Panther Party member, Kathleen Cleaver or intersectional feminist, Angela Davis simply because the figure is female, dressed in black, and with hair styled in an Afro-is simply a portrayal of his young cousin. Through his portraiture, Hendricks tells a biographical tale of his subject through an easily recognizable artistic composition while emphasizing their individual identity and collective identity according to the literal timeframe in which he painted the picture. The curve of her dark brown Afro is amplified by the gold-leaf background and arch of the canvas, creating a lunette- direct reference to religious iconography of the post modern European era. Historically, gold-leaf paintings are Byzantine-Hendricks artistic reference extends beyond the poster art of 1960s Black Arts Movements, and before the post colonial era; this dates back to even before the Renaissance and prior to the onset of modern Western painting. Hendricks actively ambitious portraiture takes a wide historical detour in its reference to religious iconagraphy of Mary, but remains modern and relevant through the use of the colloquial expression of excitement (typically used to describe female attractiveness), “Lawdy Mama”- this is an interpretation of traditional composition and rendering them assertively black.

Upon viewing one of Barkley Hendrick’s large scale portraits, you are immediately effected by the spatial relationship of parity; these are not larger than life paintings, they are not idealized images, they are extraordinarily exceptional and realistic representations of strangers. With no physical barrier between yourself and the painting, you are subconsciously inclined to approach the painting even closer-but there is something about the vibrancy of colors and hyperrealism of the art subjects themselves that stops you from completely entering into the painted environment. This convention and the incredibly strong gestural eye contact Hendricks creates in his faces as well as the actual eye contact from the viewer facilitates an extraordinary intimate moment in which one is allowed access into the reality of another, albeit through a painted figure on canvas. Despite the confusion and misinterpretation, Barkely Hendricks successfully orchestrates his art, particularly his portraiture, to be situated between figuration and abstraction in order to convey the assimilation of self possessed, nuanced, black humanity into mainstream American identity and Western art history.


[1] Floyd R. Thomas Jr, “A Personal Reflection on the Barkley Hendricks Exhibit-As I See It” featured in The Barkley L. Hendricks Experience Exhibition Catalogue 17, March 2001.

[2]Richard J. Powell “To Be Real” featured in The Barkley L. Hendricks Experience Exhibition Catalogue 17, March 2001.

[3]Giorgio Agamben,The Man Without Content. “The Most Uncanny Thing”

[4]Karen Rosenburg, “Berkley Hendricks on Why You Shouldn’t Call Him A Political Artist” 16. March 2016

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