by David M. Roth
History painter would not be a label most observers would apply to Mike Henderson. For decades, the East Bay artist’s work, which includes filmmaking and a side career as a blues guitarist, revolved mainly around the luxuriant, richly hued abstract paintings for which he is well known. Two overlapping exhibitions – a 20-year survey at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art (co-curated by Sampada Aranke and Dan Nadel) and another at Haines Gallery – expand our view, revealing sides of Henderson little known beyond the cognoscenti.
Who knew, for example, that in the mid-1960s, Henderson created gut-wrenching works of political protest followed by films that probed the legacy of colonialism, slavery, white supremacy and Black identity? To be accurate, these works haven’t been been entirely absent from the public eye; they’ve been shown in bits and pieces several times over the past few years, including, most recently, at SFAI, in a 2019 exhibition billed as a retrospective, and in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power: 1963-1983, a touring show of Black art that touched down at the de Young the same year.
Even so, a Henderson gap persists. It traces to a studio fire that, in 1985, damaged much of the artist’s early output, making it unsuitable for exhibition until Haines, working with the Manetti Shrem (at UC Davis where Henderson taught painting for 43 years), restored what was salvageable. Those works, along with a selection of films and collages on canvas, are the subject of Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985 (at Manetti Shrem through June 25) and Mike Henderson: Chicken Fingers, 1976-1980, a more extensive exhibition of the canvas collages (at Haines through March 25.)
These phases of Henderson’s career trace to his Jim Crow-era youth in Marshall, Missouri and to his experiences in San Francisco, where, after being awarded a scholarship to attend SFAI in 1965, he found himself swept up by the school’s atmosphere of freewheeling intellectual inquiry, Vietnam War protests, the counterculture, a thriving Bay Area music scene, and the emerging Black Power movement with which he was briefly aligned. His instructors immediately recognized his talent and awarded him his own studio, a rare privilege. They also urged him to develop a unique voice by continually asking, “Who are you?”
The early paintings he made at SFAI are brutal, sometimes shockingly so, and not just because of the blood spilled, the racist caricatures repurposed, and the primal terror depicted, but because the circumstances from which they arose mirror today’s as much as they do Henderson’s impoverished youth — when teachers in his hometown likened Black students to monkeys, when the Ku Klux Klan paraded and burned crosses within view of his family home and when, in his newly adopted hometown of Oakland, the Black Panthers organized a nationwide network of community defense teams to stop police violence. Those same years also saw a succession of assassinations of Black leaders (Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr.) and their sympathizers (the Kennedys), as well as the murder of 24 Panther officials over six months. All of this fueled fires already burning inside civil rights leaders who, by the end of the decade, were growing frustrated by the slow pace of change and the resilience of racist practices which kept popping up in new guises.
Those same fires burned inside artists who allied themselves with the Black Arts Movement, the de facto cultural arm of Black Power. As Amiri Baraka (né Leroi Jones) and others defined it, its goal was to do for Black art what Black Power sought to do in the political realm: repudiate white aesthetics and replace them with a new sensibility that defined and spoke exclusively to Black interests. Without formally aligning himself with the movement, Henderson, for a short spell, appeared to take its goals as his own; the triggering event, according to Nadel’s account in the exhibition catalog, was Al Held asking, “Hey, what are you gonna have for the people who have been on the front lines of the revolution while you’re going to school?” Henderson responded by embarking on what he called “Protest Paintings.”
Two mural-sized works, Non-Violence and Last Supper (at Manetti Shrem), both made in 1967 when Henderson was a 27-year-old student, are the most potent examples; they anchor an exhibition that divides into three parts, five if you count the video slideshow of the unsalvageable works and the listening room to devoted to Henderson’s music. These early works reveal a fully formed artist operating in a Neo-Expressionist mode, prefiguring by a decade a style that wouldn’t take hold in New York until the late-1970s. Employing what Richard J. Powell (Going There: Black Visual Satire) called “reverse minstrelsy,” Henderson turned racist caricatures against multiple foes. Non-Violence shows a white police officer in blackface assaulting two cowering Black women with a large knife, while at the center of the frame, another figure, also in blackface, gnaws on a severed arm. Apart from Henderson’s paint handling, which is as brutally emphatic as the scene is lurid, what immediately jumps out from Non-Violence is the disconnect between title and content. It appears to be a non-sequitur until you consider the degree to which Martin Luther King’s Gandhi-inspired credo, while politically successful, failed to protect Black citizens from state-sponsored violence. That, I imagine, is what Henderson had in mind when he applied this seemingly contradictory title to the painting, indicting, in one fell swoop, racist cops and an insufficiently militant Black populace. One might also wonder about the Nazi armband worn by the knife-wielding cop. It seems like an over-the-top distortion until you peer into the cesspool of 20th-century history. There, we learn that when Hitler contemplated the extermination of Europe’s Jews, he sent an envoy to the US to study how it suppressed its minority populations. His findings, according to Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: the Origins of our Discontents, formed the template for the Nuremberg Laws, precursors to the “final solution.” Whether Henderson knew this when he painted Non-Violence hardly matters – his “fiction” aligns with historical facts.
Subversions of this sort date to the postbellum period, when theatrical performances aimed at clued-in Black audiences turned minstrel stereotypes against their creators. By speaking “in code,” the performers distanced themselves and their audiences from caricature’s original degradations and turned the embodied fictions into entertainment. Mid-20th century artists like Elizabeth Catlett and the cartoonist Ollie Harrington extended the practice by using titles that, like Henderson’s, rely on ironic mismatches between image and text to make their points. Since then, there’s been a steady resurgence in this tactic by many visual artists, chief among them Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, Robert Colescott, Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall and David Hammons, to name just a few.
Last Supper presents an even more complicated conceptual puzzle that predates by nearly a decade, Colescott’s practice of revamping historical paintings (e.g., George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware (1975) from a Black perspective. It pictures Jesus collapsed across the super table with a knife in his back, surrounded by a gang of leering, lecherous, blood-spattered demons: the apostles. Central though they are to the Eucharist, the more essential aspects of this painting lay elsewhere: in the watermelon slice whose red juices match the blood of Christ and in the snoozing Black watermelon vendor at the lower right corner. Both reflect the long history of watermelon being used as “a popular signifier” of what Erin Gray, in the exhibition catalog, called “coon instability, sloth, juvenility and excess pleasure.” Henderson, however, doesn’t stop there.
With the image of a backstabbed Jesus limply plucking a guitar, he skewers the longstanding notion of the blues as the “devil’s music.” Its endurance owes as much to Christian suppression of Black art as it does to the legend of Robert Johnson, the bluesman who supposedly cut a deal with the devil in exchange for musical powers. That was one reason why Henderson, the bluesman, broke from the Baptist church in his early 20s. Overt racism (“Santa Claus calling us niggers during Christmas”) and the church’s portrayal of Jesus on the cross as a white man also contributed to Henderson’s repudiation of religion. “I’ve learned through our history,” Henderson said, “how a painting works and how subliminal it can be.” Out of that realization came The Last Supper, which the artist later remade as a rollicking, slapstick orgy of a film in which Jesus has sex with Mary on a table strewn with smashed watermelons.
Other noteworthy early paintings in the Manetti Shrem exhibition include Freedom (1968), depicting, three years before the Attica uprising, a prison riot in which Black inmates assault white jailers; Sunday Night (1968), a church scene in which a man, situated in a group of parishioners, stares out from the pews looking terrified; and Love it or Leave it, I will Love it if you Leave It (1976), an American flag engulfed in a hail of graffiti-like marks through which the words “Just Married” and “Fool’s Paradise” can be glimpsed. Though the iconography resists interpretation, the title does not: I take it to be Henderson’s response to “America, love it or leave it,” a right-wing taunt during the Vietnam War years whose racist origins long predate US meddling in Southeast Asia.
As the 1960s drew to a close, Henderson turned to filmmaking because, as he told an interviewer, he wanted his “figures to move.” Between 1970 and 1984, he completed 22 shorts ranging in length from two to 14 minutes. Five on view at Manetti Shrem – The Last Supper (1970-3), Dufus (aka Art) (1970-3), Down Hear (1972), Pitchfork and the Devil (1979) and The Shape of Things (1981) – deal mostly with the same themes as the “Protest Paintings.”
Down Hear, filmed in a kitchen, shows Henderson in white face humiliating a shirtless Black man portrayed by the artist’s younger brother. He sits blindfolded, tied to a chair. The soundtrack, a talking blues, voiced and played on guitar by Henderson, tells of a man shivering in the hold of a slave ship, with the artist substituting “Lord, it’s cold down here” for “You got me way down here,” Big Joe Williams’ line from the 1935 delta blues classic, Baby Please Don’t Go. Near the film’s end, the bound man clutches a framed picture of Jesus, reminding us not of salvation but of the fact that before the Civil War, religion was used to justify slavery.
In Dufus (aka Art), a satirical look at Black identity, Henderson enacts a series of male stereotypes. In the manner of Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary, each appears onscreen introduced by cue cards. “Work” (a tired old janitor sweeping rubbish around a room). “Scum-bad” (a peace-and-love spouting hippy wearing a gasmask). “Dork” (a swishy cross-dresser). “Mofoc!” (a jive-talking beatnik). “Splurnk” (“Good-time Charlie, the last of the big-time spenders,” seen in a fur coat lighting a cigarette from a burning dollar bill). “Me” (Henderson painting the word “art” on a wood door). And finally, “The End” (with Henderson quoting Dylan: “It’s all over now baby blue.”).
The Shape of Things shows the artist outside politics, probing his own psychology in a variety of guises. On a couch, sawing at a violin while repeating the words “Curves and lines, lines and curves.” Sitting on a toilet spinning rhymes off Sun Ra’s signature line, “Space is the place.” Staring at a mirror reciting verse (“Mirror, mirror on the wall, do either one of us exist at all? “) Sitting at a table shouting profanities. Jumping up and down on a piece of slate. Dancing robotically while chanting the word “Detail.” Shadow boxing (“Love me, love me not.”). Digging a hole into which he contemplates burying a palette. Sitting in a chair, repeating the words “Adaptive regression.” Drawing geometric shapes on a sheet of paper saying: “I know all you cats and kitties, fishes and wise owls know what it is. And for all you cats that didn’t get it, IT doesn’t matter!”
Henderson’s painting, by the mid-1970s, had become equally self-referential and, at turns,, hermetic. We see it in monumentally scaled canvas-on-canvas collages whose elements appear to have been gathered from his studio floor — remnants, perhaps, of discarded paintings or lengths of painted fabric created for that purpose. What the works lack in explicit content, they more than make up for in associative possibilities. At first glance, they read as ad hoc jumbles, vaguely redolent (in spirit) of Robert Rauschenberg’s combines. In their coloration, greens particularly, one also detects hints of Romare Bearden, the vaporous staining of Helen Frankenthaler (whose work Henderson saw early on) and the iterative side of Jay DeFeo, a close ally and mentor during Henderson’s student days. Both artists, beginning in the mid-1970s, operated with a similar conceptual mindset: she by making multi-stage collages with a photocopier, he by manually repurposing whatever materials lay close at hand.
The bulk of these works, on view at Haines, move in two directions simultaneously — back to Henderson’s rural roots and forward to a future informed by cosmic aspirations. Take, for example, Cloud Nine (1977). Though the title derives from The Temptations’ 1969 song of the same name, about drug-fueled escape, the composition — ostensibly a landscape –revolves, at the center, around a cow’s head and a swatch of gingham — earthly references, both. Elsewhere, the Man in the Moon, made from a square of seared canvas, stares down from the top left, while another such swatch in the lower right corner, achieved by folding and baking, shows what looks like a fossilized imprint of a face. Otherworldly references also show up in Relay (1980) and in an untitled watercolor from 1978, a landscape inhabited by Gumby figures and low-hanging planets. In this, a ladder with missing rungs points to one such body, indicating thwarted dreams. Trust (1981), a painting at the Manetti Shrem, enacts the same dilemma with a skyward-staring figure in a sea of blue facing an accusatory finger. Saturn-like rings inside the head make clear that the desire being entertained — and denied — is interplanetary travel. From a formalist standpoint, I can’t help but marvel at the variety of compositional approaches Henderson employs in this series. They range on the one hand from the wide-open space of Cleopatra (1980), where two animal heads float in a blue-pink wash, to the enigmatically titled The Peacock’s Mistake (1979), a scene stuffed with animal heads, human faces and a blizzard of cut-out shapes, including a length of green fabric that hangs off the surface like a banner about to unfurl.
Afro-Futurist? Perhaps. But I hesitate to apply that label because Henderson’s pictures contain none of the technological components that define the genre, which, to me, has always felt like a misnomer once you get past artists like Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix, Parliament Funkadelic and the novelist Octavia Butler. After all, has there ever been a time when Black art wasn’t about the future? The point, as it relates to Henderson’s oeuvre –up to the place where these two shows leave off — is that his art, like his music, has been an extended, unvarnished exercise in truth-telling whose latest chapter (1985 to the present) will be a story for another day, best told in a full career retrospective. At that point, we’ll be able to assess the complete cycle of what, for this artist, has always been a rigorous, dialectical process of self-examination, one that also happens to coincide with one of the most consequential periods in US history.
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Cover image: Rain, 1978, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 64 1/2 x 120 1/2 inches.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.