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Stories in Portraits: Barkley Hendricks Speaks at the Harvard Art Museums

By Yael M. Saiger, Contributing Writer

At his talk at the Harvard Art Museums last Tuesday evening, Barkley Hendricks, an American portraitist famous for his depiction of African Americans subjects in everyday life, presented a series of his paintings. “Give yourself a round of applause for coming out,” he said as he ascended the podium. “Enjoy and put your heads to work a little with some of the imagery that you’ll see.” As he presented a slideshow of his work, Hendricks maintained a light and friendly manner, telling stories, cracking jokes and introducing the audience to his subjects. Hendricks framed his presentation around the stories that defined his art.

He then sat down for a short discussion with Matt Saunders, assistant professor of Visual and Environmental Studies, and questions from the audience. Hendricks discussed his life, his interests, his philosophy and the politics of his work, but seemed happiest to discuss individual paintings.

Asked to describe the most difficult thing he ever did as an artist, Hendricks answered simply, “It wasn’t difficult for me.” For Kathryn A. McCawley ’17, this ease came across in Hendricks’s presentation of his work. “It was very clear that he was someone who just took a lot of joy from his work,” McCawley said.

At some points, Hendricks offered advice to the audience. While discussing “Mayreh,” a portrait of a young white woman, Hendricks paused to tell the story of someone who told him they could not paint black people, and someone else who said they could not paint white people. In both cases, Hendricks said, he denied their claims. “If you can paint, you can paint anybody. You’ve got to learn how to sort of work with color, and don't let the stupidness of the culture mess up your eyes in terms of your visual thinking."

Mostly, though, Hendricks told narratives, allowing race and politics to come through in the pieces themselves. “His focus was just presenting the artwork and then talking about the people who were represented in the piece,” McCawley said. “It was just beautiful to see how much he truly cared about the people in his paintings.”

Hendricks told stories of how he met his subjects. It seemed almost as if he was introducing his audience to the people in his paintings. “This is ‘Big Chuck,” he said as one piece appeared on the screen. It was unclear whether he was referring to Big Chuck, the man, or “Big Chuck,” the painting. “I would have to credit Big Chuck with introducing me to my current wife today,” he added.

As he presented his works, Hendricks told stories about the people he depicted. He described an old friend, his former girlfriends, a friend who joined and then left the Black Panther Party, and Corbett, who grew up drawing with Hendricks and then went to prison while Hendricks went to art school. As he discussed his subjects, the artist wove narratives with his words just as he did with his paintings.

Mary Schneider Enriquez ’81, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Harvard Art Museums, commented on Hendrick’s effective depictions of not just physical features, but people as individuals. “When he tells you who they are, you see that he really is giving a sense of who the person is,” Schneider Enriquez said.

Hendricks structured his presentation around simple explanation of the subjects in his portraits and the materials he used to construct them. Joel Seidner, a teaching assistant in Harvard’s Visual and Environmental Studies department, believes the stories are interwoven with the images. “The images do stand for themselves, and he feels no need to explain them and the way that they have gone unchanged from the story that influenced them,” said Seidner.

According to Schneider Enriquez, this focus on the work is what made the event successful. “The purpose of an event like this is precisely a means by which we all learn more what is behind the thinking of what an artist brings to his work,” she said.

Schneider Enriquez said that Hendricks’ presentation revealed why and how he makes choices. For her, the importance Hendricks afforded his subjects’ individuality was a striking revelation of his talk. This revelation is particularly useful to Schneider Enriquez as a curator who helps decide how to display Hendricks’ work, but she believes that learning how artists think is valuable for others as well.

“I think it allows us all to see art with more layers of meaning and understanding because it can strike us as extraordinary, but when you have the person who created it explain why and how they did it, it gives it a whole other life,” said Schneider Enriquez.

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