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    Saturday, September 23, 2023

    A Whaling City perspective: Lyman Allyn hosts Barkley L. Hendricks show

    “Michael Jordan” by Barkley L. Hendricks, one of the works on display in the “Barkley L. Hendricks in New London” exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Museum of Art through Sept. 3. (Courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

    It’s a dubious but intriguing idea.

    What if you had an internationally known and respected artist — one whose creative impulses couldn’t be reined in by any one discipline but were explored through portraiture, photography, drawing, landscapes and teaching? The range of the artist’s work, too, was wide-reaching, reflecting subjects like music, fashion, sports, Black identity, media and culture in general — and virtually any real-time experience or observations that unfolded.

    Here’s the hook: Confine that artist to one small geographical area — six square miles, maybe. Over four decades. And let’s see what happens.

    In fact, it DID happen — sort of — and that’s the general concept behind “Barkley L. Hendricks in New London,” on display at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London through Sept. 3.

    Hendricks lived in the Whaling City from 1972 until his death in 2017, working on his art and teaching at Connecticut College for 38 years. He was a known presence in the community with his omnipresent camera, which served as an artistic delivery system of photographs as well as to record ideas that could later be articulated through paint on canvas.

    Of course, Hendricks was also productive and evolved as an artist during his early years in his hometown of Philadelphia, traveling extensively in Europe, and learning photography from, among others, Walker Evans at Yale. Hendricks was twice exhibited in New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art as well as at Duke University’s Nasher Museum and in Manhattan’s Jack Shainman Gallery.

    And starting on Sept. 21 of this year and running through Jan. 7, 2024, the renowned Frick Collection in New York, permanent home to works by Rubens, Ver Meer, Turner, Velázquez Bruegel the Elder and dozens more geniuses, will feature a solo exhibit of Hendricks’ Black portraiture – the museum’s first-ever solo show by a Black artist.

    For all the global acclaim, though, Hendricks thrived in and was inspired by New London.

    Looking at it locally

    In a phone call last week, Lyman Allyn curator Tanya Pohrt says, “There isn’t always the New London focus to Barkley’s work, and it seemed like a good opportunity, at a point when he and his career are well known nationally and internationally, to turn around that regionality and show that places and people around here were important to his work.”

    The exhibit is laid out in three galleries and includes 34 pieces as well as archival minutiae from the Conn College archives. Photographs and paintings comprise the bulk of the show. The latter feature images of passersby on the streets of the city, on campus at both Connecticut College and the Coast Guard Academy, and inside random spaces.

    One distinctive image was taken in the Dutch Tavern from a stool at the bar, capturing a post-NBA-championship-game Michael Jordan being interviewed on a television suspended in the saloon’s corner. The setting, the composition, and the subject matter all combine to capture the artist’s fascination with sports — particularly basketball — media, and a definitive place in the city.

    Other photos show individuals or small groups — folks that caught Barkley’s eye because of their activity, fashion, personality or all of the above. Two photos feature young men holding jam boxes, and the inference is that the artist recognized not just a current cultural trend but also sensed a significant change in music as a force and a delivery system thereof.

    There are also two separate photos of smartly-dressed woman — one group relaxing in Harkness Park and the other standing in front of a granite downtown building — and the shots echo Hendricks’ own charisma as he surprises his subjects. It’s as though they have just enough time to react in amusement before he clicks the shutter. At the same time, both pieces suggest Hendricks has just missed an amusing anecdote or situation that probably won’t be shared — and he’s fine with that.

    “Barkley had that ability to connect with people on the street in a wide range of circumstances, and to seize the important moments,” Pohrt says. “He’s so clever and there’s so many layers to what he was doing that sometimes you don’t think about everything he’s captured. The more you look, the more you see, and I don’t think people ordinarily see the humor that might surface in a slightly naughty or rowdy way – although never mean.”

    Through a lens (darkly)

    Perhaps the most moving image is from 1982 and is called “Racesonomic Duncepack Series,” taken at a Ku Klux Klan meeting on a baseball field in Scotland, Conn. The photo freezes a moment as the processional of Klanspersons march by in their white robes and peaked hats. The focus is on a young woman on the left, and her face could be expressing either somber purpose or possibly faint regret. To her right, just ahead of her in the processional, is a 40-something male. Though slightly out of focus, his eyes are fixed on Hendricks with palpable malevolence.

    The text card accompanying the photo confirms the power of the image from the artist’s point of view. It includes a quote from Barkley’s assistant that day, James “Ari” Montford, who said the pair were at one point surrounded by the group, called the N-word, and identified as “Here’s the problem right here!,” as though the Klan were CDC scientists looking at plague slides.

    Afterward, the text explains, Hendricks and Montford drove to the latter’s house and sat in the kitchen, with the Montford describing the scene. They said “nothing for a very long time. It took a year or two for both of us to process the experience.”

    But if that photo and a few others in the show could be considered overtly opinionated, that was never Hendricks’ intention or his modus operandi.

    “Barkley photographed what he saw, without the overlay of personal political commentary,” Susan Hendricks, the artist’s widow, says in an email Wednesday. “If an image seems political, that’s because what he saw was inherently political, not because he was steering us visually to any of his own personal opinions.”

    As large as life

    The painted portraits in the exhibit include a few of the images Hendricks is best known for and which are rendered in his version of Old Masters and Grand Manner portraiture — a painting style that incorporates realism and aspects of culture in life-size canvases. They also typify Hendricks’ teaching process in drawing and painting classes that utilized live models.

    “APB’s (Afro-Parisian Brothers),” “Cool Raymond,” “North Philly Niggah” and “Brenda P.” are from this group and are probably the most familiar pieces in the show. The technique, poses, attire and humanity exuding from the canvas exemplify why Hendricks is regarded as a visionary not just in terms of conception and technique but in his desire for racial diversity in art.

    Finally, the show also features examples of Hendricks’ watercolors (“Mutant Plum”) and an oil-on-linen landscape (“New Year’s Day in the Quarry #2”).

    “There is one thing I hope people take from this is the breadth of the work,” Pohrt says. “He’s known for the large-scale portraits, and it’s great to have a few of those most identified with him. But we also have examples of the photography and some watercolors. And these qualities go hand in hand with his teaching experiences, with what he was assigning his students. That aspect was connective with his own work and he utilized his own experiences to amplify that.”

    Go Camels!

    Lyman Allyn is located adjacent to Conn College, and it’s important that part of “In New London” includes that aspect of the artist’s life. Though the exhibit isn’t formally connected to the college, a display case full of materials contributed by Conn’s Linda Lear Archives shows bits of memorabilia including one of Hendricks’ artist applications for the annual Hygienic Art Show — amusing in the same way it would be to require Paul McCartney to sign up for a beginning songwriting class — as well as postcards from faculty art exhibits that included the artist’s work.

    “Last fall I taught an art history class at Conn that focused on Hendricks and involved students in research connected to the exhibition,” Pohrt says. “We interviewed a few former colleagues and students and hosted several Hendricks lectures and events on campus, with one more to come … We also had a sizable group of Conn alumni come through over reunion weekend in early June, including many former students of Hendricks.’”

    In the third gallery of the exhibit is a small console where visitors can watch and listen to a short interview Hendricks gave at the Tate Museum in 2016. In it, he describes how he’d been “rocked” by a 17th-century portrait of Agostino Pallavicini by Anthony Van Dyck.

    “I wanted to do a copy, and I went out to get supplies,” Hendricks says. “And something hit me like a bolt of lightning. And I said, ‘You can’t copy somebody else.’ That was a significant moment in my life. If I was going to be involved in art, it was going to have to be for me.”

    If you go

    What: “Barkley L. Hendricks in New London”

    Where: Lyman Allyn Museum of Art, 625 Williams St., New London

    When: Through Sept. 3

    How much: Free to New London residents, $12 adults and children under 12, $9 seniors , $7 military, $5 students, $3 adults with Snap EBT card, through September 4, Connecticut children age 18 and under plus one accompanying Connecticut resident adult can visit participating museums free of charge through the Connecticut Summer at the Museum program

    For more information: (860) 443-2545, lymanallyn.org.

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