Book Review: Michael Jackson On The Wall

Say what you will about the King of Pop, the impact that Michael Jackson has had over the collective cultural conscious throughout his 50 years is undeniable. His musical influence on subsequent artists is simply unavoidable, from his immediate followers like Madonna and Bobby Brown, to later stars like Usher and Justin Timberlake. Thriller, the John Landis-directed mini-movie, influenced a generation of directors including Spike Jonze, turned music promos into an industry, and established MTV as a cultural force. In fashion, Jackson immortalised sparkly gloves and started the trophy jacket trend in the Eighties. On the dance floor, Jackson cut an unforgettable figure with his taut, cool, rhythmic moves including his perfectly poised toestand, his gravity-defying lean and, of course, his moonwalk.

But, what is less well-known up to now is Jackson's influence on contemporary art - the subject of the National Portrait Gallery's energetic and fascinating book and its accompanying exhibition, Michael Jackson: On The Wall. The authors claim that Jackson is the most cultural depicted figure in contemporary visual art, inspiring works by 48 artists including Andy Warhol, Grayson Perry, Isa Genzken and Glenn Ligon. The book, with essays by Nicholas Cullinan, Margo Jefferson and Zadie Smith and a well-produced plate section of the works in the exhibition, does a great job in unpicking just why so many artists have been drawn to Michael Jackson. Cullinan's essay adds helpful context to the works, most notably by letting the artists speak in their own words about the influence that the King of Pop had on them and the meaning of their portraits.

Some works pay tribute to his sheer brilliance as a performer. In Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom’s  PYT, Jackson becomes an overlarge pair of penny loafers, held on tiptoe by a bunch of helium balloons, balancing in the moment that the King of Pop did in his iconic dance move, the Freeze. As the artist explains, 'Michael Jackson one of the few famous performers that has made movement iconic in both gesture and costume.'  (p44)

Other artists craft portraits of the singer not through his image but rather through the impact he had on his fans such as Candice Breitz mesmerising video installation, King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson) which assembles 16 Jackson fans from Germany and Austria to sing all nine songs from the album Thriller. The performers are shown side by side, some dressed like Jackson and engrossed in their performance; others, awkward and out of tune.  

Candice Breitz King

King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson) by Candice Breitz 2005.
Courtesy: Kaufmann Repetto (Milan) + KOW (Berlin)

In her engaging essay, Margo Jefferson argues that a key inspiration for artists was Jackson's constant reinvention which took him from precocious boy singer to daring solo artist and to cultural icon. 'The Little Prince of Soul grew into the King of Pop, and then became a global sorcerer, a magician of metaphor' (pg48). And many works in the collection do consider the extent that Jackson constructed himself as an icon. KAWS' portrait overlays an image of Jackson with multiple white gloves - a comment on how the artist would take normal articles of clothing such as white gloves and a red jacket and claim them as elements of his identity, Michael Lee Bush's leather jacket with cutlery was commissioned by Jackson as a conversation piece for his dinner parties at Neverland Ranch. While Michael Gittes' Masters at Work blends Jackson with Sinatra by syncing Jackson's video for Smooth Criminal with Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon”.

Michael Jackson Dinner Jacket

Michael Jackson’s ‘dinner jacket’ by Michael Lee Bush Date unknown,
Courtesy of John Branca. Image © Julien’s Auctions / Summer Evans

Zadie Smith's short essay and many of the most affecting pieces delve into the more political aspects of Jackson as a figure, particularly his positioning as an African American artist brought into the mainstream. Smith's essay is a personal one about her bitter disappointment and hatred of Jackson: 'It was as if the schizophrenic, self-hating, hypocritical and violent history of race in America had incarnated itself in a single man'. (P56)  David Hammons depicts Jackson as one of a trio of microphone stands, the others standing for boxer Mike Tyson and basketball player Michael Jordan. Tellingly, the mic stands are too high for anyone to use, a comment on unattainable ambitions and public expectations.

And then there are the darker works in which he represents the absolute excesses of fame. Suddenly, MJ becomes troubled and fragmented. He’s Jesus and a winged angel in David Lachapelle’s photos, and a ghostly spectre in Jordan Wolfson video taken from the musician’s statement against accusations of child molestation, which obscures everything but MJ’s eyes, 

The book is beautifully designed by Joe Ewart - it's cover echoing the design of the exhibition - and is rounded out by an illustrated timeline of Michael Jackson's life, artist biographies,  a list of plates and figures as well as a short bibliography.  My only quibble is that the book has no index, which makes navigating to particular works cumbersome. But don't let this put you off. This is a book about many things: talent, fame, obsession and identity and above all how art can decode, uncover and reveal myriad concepts and ideas.  

With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery for a review copy of the book.


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