REVIEW: MICHAEL JACKSON: On the Wall exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, London

REVIEW: MICHAEL JACKSON: On the Wall exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, London 1
An Illuminating Path by David-LaChapelle

This year would have marked Michael Jackson’s sixtieth birthday, so the time feels right to commemorate the King of Pop. To say he was iconic wouldn’t do him justice. With the many creative accomplishments Jackson achieved in his short fifty years on earth, controversies and his changing facial features; there is a lot of material for any curator to sift through for an exhibition.

It could only ever be called On the Wall, for example, to use the antithesis of the title of his sixth album Invincible would leave you with Visible. True no pop star was more visible in their lifetime and posthumously than Michael, but Visible doesn’t command the excitement and lacks the relevance of On the Wall. So the question is: is the On the Wall exhibition as exciting and inviting as its title?

On the cusp of entering the exhibit is an alphabet acrylic on canvas tribute or “ABC” of all things relating to Michael Jackson by Donald Urquhart with deft illustrations. B is for “Bad” and Q is for “quite a lot of awards” which were bestowed on Michael Jackson during his lifetime. Upon entering, you are enticed by Michael Jackson audio tracks. Straight ahead, but some considerable distance away is Kehinde Wiley’s Equestrian Portrait of King Phillip II (based on Peter Paul Reuben’s 1628 original), the last commissioned work by Michael Jackson which was unfinished at the time of his death in 2009. On your left you come across Keith Haring’s pop-graffiti interpretation of the King of Pop. Andy Warhol is a central figure in this exhibit, not solely because of the pieces he created of Jackson, but many of the artists who would draw Jackson like Haring were introduced to Jackson by Warhol.

REVIEW: MICHAEL JACKSON: On the Wall exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, London
Michael Jackson by Andy Warhol

Another powerful and evocative artist who created an “American Jesus” homage of works to Michael was David LaChapelle (who had also previously worked for Warhol). The Beatification uses impressive bright use of colour as seen in early Renaissance works, but the image of Michael Jackson himself in the final years of his life: thin; expressionless and devoid of any of his original handsome African-American features (or any original features except his eyes) is difficult to look at. Of all of LaChapelle’s works displayed, Archangel Michael (which shows Jackson from the Bad era with angel wings almost as big as him trampling on the devil on some rocks overlooking the sea) is the one that is most likely to captivate the majority of Jackson fans. For many (especially those growing up in the 1980’s and early 1990’s) he was a superhero; guardian angel and even a personal Jesus to some fans.

You are then drawn to a doorway surrounded by an oversized Dangerous LP cover artwork which leads you to darker dimmer lit rooms. Mr Brianwash is a well-suited portrait for this section, the use of colour and fusion of Warhol and artists likes Banksy shine through well. At the end of the Dangerous tour, rooms is a theatre room playing Candice Breitz 2005 film of 16 German-speaking Michael Jackson fans singing and dancing (mostly out of key and rhythm) to songs from the Thriller Album. The majority of visitors seemed to like this and took the opportunity to join in the chorus with their German counterparts in off-key daytime karaoke.

REVIEW: MICHAEL JACKSON: On the Wall exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, London
Wind (Michael-David) by Isa-Genzken

Following the Dangerous tour is the Behind the Mask exhibit. The original Dangerous LP artwork by Mark Ryden (who has illustrated many album covers for artists including Red Hot Chilli Peppers One Hot Minute) is displayed with a magnificent golden frame with MJ initials. One of the many post-Bad depictions of Jackson where his eyes are the main and only visible feature include Isaac Lythgoe UV print of faux leather. The adjacent room devoted to the King of Pop post-communism is a bit unimaginative. The video clips of his 1992 Bucharest tour of fantastic guaranteeing bopping but the cardboard cuts outs of Jackson's eyes with his name from the Dangerous LP cover filled with halogen lights is not perplexing to create.

You then arrive face to face with Kehinde Wiley’s Equestrian Portrait of King Phillip II. The use of colour and grandeur of a Michael Jackson from the Bad period is exceptional; the only minor flaw is the legs are slightly out of proportion; more suited to the stature of a shorter musical celebrity like Bruno Mars. The music and Lyrics section sees Graham Dolphin making effective use of Off the Wall and Thriller albums made specifically for this exhibit. As well as other exhibits which display a distorted Michael with ET by Mark Flood; the exhibition ends (depending on which route around the exhibition you take) with Warhol’s classic prints of Michael.

The majority of the works are “On the Wall”. Few sculptures are exhibited. Although Michael Jackson’s “dinner jacket” (designed by Michael Lee Bush which he wore from 1985 often when he entertained at his Neverland ranch) is displayed; very few items of clothing are featured in this exhibit. The majority of the works focus on Michael Jackson as a solo artist from 1979 onwards. Most focus on how Michael physically looked up until the mid-1990s. There are very few works devoted to Jackson’s childhood, his family, friends, politicians, celebrities (with the exception of Elizabeth Taylor) or his charity work. Some of the works like Grayson Perry’s Sex and Drugs and Earthenware don’t use Jackson as a subject matter but as an element in addressing a different subject matter. The overall theme of On the Wall is how artists captured Jackson and how Jackson captivated and still captivates global mass audiences. Each work serves the function of continuing to draw mass audiences towards Jackson as an artist as Jackson did during his lifetime.

Whilst the majority of artworks may not break new ground in artistic innovation, On the Wall as an exhibition is revolutionary in itself. Whilst soundscapes have previously played a role in exhibits, few have been as prominent as the use of Michael Jackson’s songs in On the Wall. The fact that people could admire the works, dance at the same time and reminisce over Michael Jackson and the happy memories associated with his music is something no Picasso, Van Gogh, Da Vinci Gauguin or Impressionist exhibition could ever be expected to accomplish.

REVIEW: MICHAEL JACKSON: On the Wall exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, London
Nimes Road Bedside Table by Catherine-Opie

To call On the Wall unorthodox is accurate. It encourages unorthodox habits such as dancing and even singing at an art exhibition. It is also unorthodox in getting more of Jackson’s global ethnically diverse fan base to visit an art exhibition as well as fans who had seldom visited art exhibitions previously. On the Wall shows Michael Jackson as a man who appreciated art, knew his art history and knew famous artists personally; something many fans had possibly overlooked. Hopefully, it will leave a lasting interest in art for Jackson fans. One thing is guaranteed through On the Wall; Michael Jackson as an icon, musician and more so now as an art subject matter will continue to last for at least another generation.

On the Wall, the exhibition runs until 21st October 2018. Jackson £5 ticket for 25s and under (500 tickets available, first come first served basis). For more information and to book tickets please visit

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