Cool Hendricks

There's something different about Barkley L. Hendricks' art, something that doesn't quite fit the mold of your standard, everyday paintings.

As you walk through the Santa Monica Museum of Art-who's latest exhibition is a retrospective of Hendricks' work, titled "Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of Cool, 1967-2007"-you get the sense that Hendricks, while conveying a social message in many of his paintings, is also having some fun.

This is most certainly seen in one of his earliest works on display, which is also his first self-portrait. Titled simply, "Self Portrait," the painting features a young Hendricks from 1966, standing behind an easel, brush in hand, and eyes fixed straight ahead at his subject. Whom or what exactly is the subject he is painting? Well, as the sign next to the portrait informs us, the subject is the person viewing the work. It is each and every one of us.

This is just one of several examples of Hendricks' table-turning tricks.

Another is a nude self-portrait, titled "Brilliantly Endowed," which features an older, muscular Hendricks and...well...a certain body part that is the reason for the painting's title. This work, we are informed, is meant to show "an idealized physique that plays to stereotypical perceptions of the hyper masculine black nude." It is eye opening and completely thought provoking, much like many of Hendricks' works.

There are a total of 53 of Hendricks' paintings on display, spanning a total of forty years of the artist's life, with a large percentage from the 1960s and 1970s. The more recent works are paintings of the Jamaican landscape that-while beautiful and engaging-are a departure from his portrait work.

The exhibition is part of a U.S. tour that started at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in 2008, where it made Vogue magazine's "top 25 cultural events of 2008" list. After its run at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Hendricks' exhibit will head to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, which is where Hendricks' trained as a young man before going on to earn his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Yale University.

This past Friday, May 16, a large number of people turned out for the opening reception for the exhibition. Amid a DJ spinning records, bartenders mixing drinks, and some interpretive dance, museum-goers packed themselves into the gallery space and made their way slowly past the paintings of a truly cool and original artist.

The exhibition is scheduled to run at the Santa Monica Museum of Art from now until August 22. For more information you can visit or call 310.586.6488.