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Oh Snap — Barkley L. Hendricks’ photographs


[Kitty reviews a hit-or-miss show of native Philly artist Barkley Hendricks’ photos. Hendricks had a major career retrospective in 2009 at the Studio Museum of Harlem, PAFA (his alma mater), and elsewhere, which was much acclaimed. — the Artblog editors]

For years, a life-size oil portrait, “Miss T” by Barkley L. Hendricks, hung at the bottom of the steps in the Historic Landmark Museum of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

The painting represented a new era, when a then-young black artist–and PAFA grad–could embrace painting skills passed through the ages to portray the dignity and strength of a vital, young, black urban woman.

That is, unlike Henry Ossawa Tanner, a nationally recognized African-American painter, who a century earlier painted black people known to him, but because of racism, left to paint in a more accepting France.

Now 70, Hendricks, a native Philadelphian, has had a celebrated international art career that other artists could only dream of having. His work spans a number of genres, with a focus on painting people of color and other subjects.

And that brings us to a small exhibit of his photos, titled Oh Snap, at the Art Sanctuary at 626 S. 16th St.

The disparate collection of snapshots, taken between the 1970s and 1990s, but printed more recently, apparently meant something to the artist. But the show is a let-down, despite the glowing statements of co-curators Richard J. Watson and Dr. Anna Arabinden-Kesson, assistant professor of art history at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. Perhaps each snapshot holds a special memory, or was taken as a reference for a later painting, such as the Polaroids of “18 Watermelons” or “Fishbowl” in the early 1980s. We don’t know.

Two standouts

Man's back
Barkley L. Hendricks, “Fela Kuti in Concert II” (1989/2011), C-print, 17″ x 24 1/2″ (image size), 20″ x 28.4″ (paper size), 23 7/8″ x 32″ x 1 1/2″ (framed). © Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Others, such as that of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian Afrobeat composer, bandleader, and multi-instrumentalist, captured the drama of a Kuti performance, especially the 1989 photo of Kuti’s back in a bright yellow shirt with red and white symbols, his hands and long fingers outstretched above his head.

Bathtub in cart
Barkley L. Hendricks, “Bathtub Shopping Cart” (1989/2013), digital C-print, 13 1/4″ x 20″ (image size), 19 1/4″ x 26″ (paper size), 20 1/4″ x 27″ x 1 1/2″ (framed).
© Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The strongest and most unusual photo, taken in 1989, is “Bathtub Shopping Cart,” which says exactly what it is–a large bathtub in a supermarket shopping cart in the street, with a sleeping man curled up on the top step of a house, defaced with graffiti, while his head rests on a gym bag. Technically excellent, the moment captures an uncommon scene depicting poverty in the black community.

The subject of the 1988 photo “Sail Fest Lovers,” an interracial couple embracing, is rarely photographed, but the large format emphasizes its soft and slightly out-of focus quality.

As viewers, we don’t know the function of the photographs, which are uneven in quality. Had Hendricks given us a clue, the exhibit might have been more fulfilling.

A richer, more colorful and humorous example of Hendricks’ work is a rare lithograph he made at Brandywine Workshop in 1987, titled “Sacrifice of the Watermelon Virgin or Shirt Off Her Back,” which appeared earlier this year in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibit Represent: 200 Years of African-American Art.

Barkley’s our homeboy, but this exhibit didn’t do him justice.

The photo exhibit is the centerpiece of the Art Sanctuary’s month-long 31st Annual Celebration of Black Writing Festival, in which Hendricks will be honored. For more information, click here.