February 11th, 2010

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston: The Birth of Cool

In 5 Words: Groovy, Endowed, Afrobeat, Retrospective, Fela

I stop by my favorite couple’s house for a cocktail to start the evening and to convince the boyfriend that he should, in fact, join us. The company will be nice, but more importantly, it’s always nice to have a man around to double as a body guard or a drink getter. After the introductory drink, we race over to CAMH a little after 8 and find, to our surprise, that the bar has been placed outside the front doors. The cold night air hasn’t deterred the art goers from lining up to partake in the cheap spirits, wine and beer being hocked for a few dollars apiece. Noting the Smirnoff label on the sole bottle of vodka, I decide cheap wine will hurt far less than cheap vodka.


I walk inside, a drink in hand, and become part of the huddle ensconced in the small space, separating the gallery floor from the entrance. A sign reads that the “works of art are fragile and therefore no drinks are allowed on the gallery floor.” As an art patron used to walking around these events with a glass of wine in one hand while elegantly placing the other on my chin in intense observation, I decide to finish the glasses of wine quickly enough to achieve a slight drunkenness that allows me to pretend to continue to have a glass of wine in my hand.


After twenty minutes of idle conversation and much wine sipping, I finally make my way onto the gallery floor. I try to put myself in the mindset of the time period so that the works can be appreciated in their cultural context. This first ever career retrospective of Barkley L. Hendricks is largely comprised of startlingly large portraits, sometimes life size, of African-Americans in fashionable dress against flat, monochromatic backgrounds, painted by the artist in the 70’s and 80’s. The retrospective, appropriately titled The Birth of Cool, boasts canvases covering every wall that make you travel back in time and use words like groovy to describe the DJ, who has been strategically placed in a corner of the gallery.


The contest for the most radical piece in the show is a tie between Hendricks’s nude self portrait titled, Brilliantly Endowed, 1971 and the multi-media installation, Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, 2002. In the self portrait, the artist depicts himself wearing only a white cap, thick athletic socks, white shoes and a few small pieces of jewelry. The title is a play on the words used by an art critic to describe Hendricks’s talent.


The installation is a memorial to the pioneer of Afrobeat music, Fela, whose influence has been revived in the last few years and is evident in music, pop culture, and a Broadway musical. Hendricks painted Fela holding a microphone with one hand and grabbing his crotch with the other, an erect cigarette poking through his fingers. The halo over the single prominent figure of Fela evokes the Byzantine period. The painting seems to rest on an armature that draws your eyes downward to the floor where 27 pairs of shoes sit. Each pair represents one of the women who sang or danced backup for Fela, whom he married in a communal ceremony.


The art appreciation draws to a close about an hour after embarking on our journey away from the imaginary space which alcohol could not travel beyond. One by one, we make our way to the exit, waiting on the rest of the pack to follow. Waiting for everyone to gather, my friend nudges me to make sure I am paying attention as she tells me that we are standing two feet away from the artist. She introduces us in one breath and the artist requests to take my photo with the camera slung across his shoulder. I pose, a smile plastered across my face for an uncomfortable amount of time, as he adjusts the shot just right. As most of my friends know, I have a tendency to frown in photos, but something about Hendricks made me smile for his photograph. We sat chatting for a few minutes about the retrospective, about his wife, and about style. Out of the corner of my eye, I observe two older ladies tearing off the plastic wrap on their newly purchased catalogs of the show as they wait for the man’s autograph. Not wanting to get in the way of their artist worship, I ask for his email address, make my polite comments and gracefully exit back into the cold night air.


For me the most striking piece was the portrait of the artist’s wife, Ma Petite Kumquat, 1983. She wears a little bow tie around her neck, leg warmers, Christmas bows on the front of each shoe, a leopard print muff in her left hand, her hair is styled in the opulent teased out pouf that defined the 80’s and she holds a kumquat in her right hand. The rich use of color and texture are at odds with her eyes, which are shut as though the additional detail of pupil or iris would put the painting over the top. I asked the artist during our brief visit about the curator’s note found next to the painting, detailing Hendricks’s use of different objects in the painting to express his varied skill as an artist. The note led me to believe that parts of her ensemble were an embellishment, but his reply came across in a proud appreciative tone, “No, that was all her. She had, and still has, style.”


There is something trite in the idea of writing about art, especially recognizable art. It’s been done. It is rare that a comment is written that hasn’t already been said. For this article, I was able to draw my inspiration from the conversation with the artist. His energy, his passion in discussing his work lent to my passion to want to represent his work to the anonymous part of his public. I asked him if there was one piece missing from this exhibit that he wished had been included and his response was, “All of them.”


Where – 5216 Montrose Blvd., Houston, TX 77006 (View Map)
What – The Birth of Cool by Barkley L. Hendricks
Wear – Just Be Cool. You Won’t Live Up to the Artist’s Work, But Try.
How Much – Free!!
When – Tue-Wed 10AM – 5PM; Thurs: 10AM – 9PM; Fri-Sat: 10AM – 5PM; Sun: Noon – 5PM

— Afrodet


Joel Luks — Friday, April 2, 2010 5:50 pm

CAMH is a cool place. I’d recommend the Art Essay Discussion group the first Wednesday of each month at 6:30 pm. Lots of colorful personalities and lively discourse.

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