Michael Jackson: On the Wall at the National Portrait Gallery
Few figures in the last 50 years can be said to have had as much of a cultural impact as Michael Jackson. With this expansive display of works about and inspired by MJ, the National Portrait Gallery is almost guaranteeing itself a blockbuster that will pull in fans and art-lovers alike. Far from a rehashing of a biography almost too familiar (some have even called it biblical), the exhibition, curated by the Gallery’s director Nicholas Cullinan, sets out to (sometimes literally) cut the man out of the pages of time and see him as a cultural signifier, an icon and a muse.
David LaChapelle’s photographs, employing Catholic symbolism to highlight Jackson’s spectral fragility, are an effective way in to this thematic thread. The musician, sainted and obsessed over by his fans, reached untold heights as a figure of inspiration, and a touchstone for so many hopes and movements. On a personal level, the labours of love by Graham Dolphin, who juxtaposes Jackson album covers with text, are a testament to this devotion. The smartest engagement with this is doubtless by Todd Gray, who sees his subject as an inspiring figure for African-Americans. Obscuring the singer’s face with pictures of people of colour, using found frames from Los Angeles and Soweto, Gray casts him in a post-colonial light, and it’s a reminder of the struggles of racial prejudice worldwide.
Arguably the bravest work on show is Jordan Wolfson’s video piece Neverland, showing just Jackson’s eyes, silent, whitewashed, as he denies allegations of child molestation. It is a moment of pause that addresses the elephant in the gallery without labouring the point or resorting to value judgements.
Jackson was a lynchpin in 1980s culture and after, working with Keith Haring and Andy Warhol (whose work also graces the Gallery walls) in full awareness of his position in world culture. But he was also a troubled soul, assailed by the world he inhabited, and it is this element of him that is a little thin on the ground. This is a colourful celebration of a man and his explosive, radiant presence, but falls short of being a fully rounded portrait.
Photos: Matthew Pull
Michael Jackson: On the Wall is at the National Portrait Gallery from 28th June until 21st October 2018. For further information or to book visit the exhibition’s website here.