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Maria Porges on Mike Henderson

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A number of the deeply political and sometimes terrifying images that appear in this early career retrospective, “Mike Henderson: Before the Fire: 1965-1985”, were painted by the now seventy-year-old artist. nine years old while a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. Some of these works are extraordinary in their combination of panoramic scale, creative ambition and relentless brutality.

Henderson, on his own, grew up poor in Marshall, Missouri. He was drawn to both painting and music from an early age, interests which he said made him “weird” as a young black man in this small community, where the Ku Klux Klan was strongly present. Although severe dyslexia made learning difficult, he graduated from high school, then boarded a bus for San Francisco in 1965 to study in the only place he had been admitted to that was not separated. .

The city was essentially ground zero for America’s cultural transformation: the land of free love, new music of virtually every stripe, and left-wing, anti-war, and civil rights activism (and just across the bay was Oakland, birthplace of the Black Panthers and Black Power). movement). In school, Henderson began making huge canvases, six by ten feet and over, depicting subjects that still shock over fifty years later. The workshop fire mentioned in the title of the exhibit is believed to have destroyed nearly all of these paintings, but extensive cleaning and restoration efforts have worked wonders on several.

The exhibition includes five of these huge paintings, three of which were made by the artist during his student years, all hung at an unusual height on the walls of the museum. In the ironic title Nonviolence, 1967, a policeman wearing a swastika armband slashes two naked black figures with a machete. Inches from his uniformed back at a cafe table sits a figure in a pointed hood, gnawing on a black person’s severed limb. Behind this strange display of cannibalism hides a cheerful window of a city – an obscene and incongruous tableau. The severed head of a black man, eyes open, sits in a bowl on the table.

Freedom, 1968, however, details a moment of recovery, as it features a group of black inmates in striped prison uniforms killing four white guards in various bloody ways. another canvas, Last Supper, 1967, presents a startling version of the eponymous sacred event so central to Christianity. Here, Jesus lies face down and stabbed in the back, surrounded by monstrous disciples, many of whom have gruesome, masked features reminiscent of those of the gruesome crowds that appear in the 1888 painting by Belgian painter James Ensor. Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889.

The iconoclasm represented by this painting will be revisited in Henderson’s film The last supper, made in 1970 but revised three years later. Described on an exhibit label as “more [of] a depraved party than a holy affair,” it is one of two works projected onto a wall in the museum’s second gallery, flanking either side of the artist Last Supper paint. Other canvases, mostly soft-hued abstractions and seminarian experimental films from the 1970s and early 1980s, complete the exhibition. Some of the films explore the malleability of the self: it is a subversive, shape-shifting thing that moves through multiple worlds. These works also allow Henderson to bring together his own identities as an artist and a musician.

But among the other works on display, the huge canvases in the first two presentation rooms eclipse all the others. The height they hang from evokes the big screen experience of watching a movie in a movie theatre, maybe something like Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) – not to mention altarpieces like that of Leonardo da Vinci Last Supper, California. 1492/94–98, or even the San Francisco Works Progress Administration murals. As difficult as Henderson’s images are, they are important reminders that the violence of the past has never gone away. It just keeps going, more alive and horrifying than ever.

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