In this month’s MJ Studies Today column, Kerry Hennigan continues her reflections on the Michael Jackson On the Wall exhibition as displayed at the Espoo Museum of Modern Art in Finland. In looking into the stories behind some of her favourite pieces, she discovers that the artists who created them share a reverential attitude towards the King of Pop as expressed in their work.
Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, and administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group, Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts.
Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LI (14-03-2020).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 6, no. 3 (2020). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-li/.
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As befits a King: Michael Jackson On the Wall at the EMMA, Finland Part 2. By Kerry Hennigan
The Michael Jackson On the Wall exhibition opened at the Espoo Museum of Modern Art (EMMA) in Finland on 21 August 2019 having previously displayed in London, Paris and Bonn. Following the last day of the exhibition (26 January 2020) the EMMA announced that On the Wall had attracted a total of 88,748 visitors to the museum, becoming one of its most popular exhibitions of all time. The only exhibition to attract larger numbers had been open for a longer period but had attracted less visitors per day than the Jackson exhibition. Making these numbers even more impressive is the fact that the EMMA is a 21-minute drive from the Finnish capital. 
The exhibition was grouped in themes that focused on artistic responses to Jackson’s influence and impact on entertainment, media representation, racial and gender stereotyping and popular culture. Most of my favourite pieces were grouped under the category titled “King of Pop”, portraying Jackson as the international superstar and global icon – the performer who could fill out stadiums and break attendance records in places where others were reluctant to go and where he remains appreciated, even revered, to this day. Consider, for example, the support given to the mounting of the exhibition in Espoo by the Romanian Cultural Institute in Stockholm and the Embassy of Romania to Finland. The people of Romania and the city of Bucharest have never forgotten the times Michael Jackson brought his Dangerous and HIStory tours to their city. 
One of the principal works in this category was by premiere pop surrealist Mark Ryden. His original artwork for Jackson’s “Dangerous” album (1992) is an exceptional painting that has been the subject of in-depth study in its own right.  As impressive as the album cover is, the original is nothing less than a feast for the eyes, encased in a regal gilt frame created specifically for the exhibition by Ryden himself. “I decided to encapsulate the original album art as though it were a relic of sorts,” Ryden said in a 2018 interview. “I designed a massive ornate frame that is more of a 3D sculpture to house the 2D painting. I wanted it to function like a reliquary. Thematically, I was interested in working with Michael Jackson’s identity as a royal… Michael was famously photographed in an elaborate golden throne which I looked to for inspiration. Similar to paintings of Napoleon or Louis IV, I want this to feel like a monumental portrait of the King.” Beyond the brilliance of the work itself, the importance of “Dangerous” is its context in relation to Jackson, with whom Ryden worked on the project. “To have worked with a star of this magnitude was an amazing experience. As the years go by, it seems even more amazing to me,” Ryden said. 
Carrying on the theme of Jackson as royalty was Kehinde Wiley’s mammoth equestrian portrait of the entertainer based on Ruben’s fanciful work of King Phillip II.  Michael had commissioned this piece and discussed the concept with Wiley by phone beginning 2007 but did not live to see it executed. “On some level, he wanted to lay things bare,” Wiley said in The New Yorker. “But he also wanted it fabulous. And the strange psychological-jujitsu trick here, I think, was when he started talking about armour as at once something that can keep things out and hold things in. And he starts talking about the artifice that’s been built, and the sort of castle.” 
I had been wanting to see Wiley’s painting of Michael since it was first exhibited in 2009 when photos of it began appearing in articles and on social media. Did it meet my expectations? Most definitely, yes! Like many of Kehinde Wiley’s works, it is a grandiose representation of an African American based on a famous old master. Wiley believes his job as an artist is to ask who deserves to be on the walls of great museums. Clearly Michael Jackson does – and is. 
To the right of the Wiley portrait was a painting titled “Michael Joseph Jackson” by Kai Guetta, showing the entertainer in his mid-twenties on horseback, surrounded and attended by younger and older versions of himself from throughout his career. Like Wiley’s much larger painting, this one is based on a historical work, Charles Le Brun’s famous painting of Chancellor Pierre Séguir (c. 1670) which depicts the chancellor on horseback surrounded by his attendants or servants.  Interestingly, Wiley has also referenced Le Brun’s group portrait, but with a Hip-Hop theme, in 2005.  I appreciated the execution of Guetta’s painting, even though the idea of Michael in his maturity paying attendance to his younger self suggests a hierarchy I happen not to agree with.
When assessing career “highs” we should be mindful that this does not necessarily equate to the most commercially successful years of an artist’s life (in Jackson’s case, the “Thriller” era of the early to mid-eighties). Rather, I believe it is when the artist’s creativity has survived the initial onslaught of mass adoration and resisted the temptation to play it safe by endlessly repeating himself. This is particularly true if, like Jackson, the artist has evolved to explore deeper, sometimes darker, material that may be of special significance to him or reflect directly on his life or his perception of the world around him. The most obvious examples from Jackson’s canon are “Tabloid Junkie”, “They Don’t Care About Us”, “Stranger In Moscow” and “Earth Song”, but there are many others, including tracks like “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” which was not even released until after Jackson’s passing. 
The words – and works – of some of the artists responsible for the paintings, sculptures, prints, installations and videos exhibited in Michael Jackson On the Wall are testimony to the continued confusion, misinformation and misunderstanding about the King of Pop – while others obviously “get it”. Consequently, On the Wall has confirmed Jackson’s stature as a polarising figure in death as in life. The success of Michael Jackson On the Wall has demonstrated his ability to continue to draw huge crowds and to inspire others. This is one of the reasons why Michael, even posthumously, is himself an artist who keeps on giving.
 EMMA press statement “Michael Jackson: On the Wall becomes one of EMMA’s all-time visitor successes” dated 27 Jan 2020 https://emmamuseum.fi/en/michael-jackson-on-the-wall-becomes-one-of-emmas-all-time-visitor-successes/
 EMMA. “Michael Jackson On the Wall”. https://emmamuseum.fi/en/exhibitions/michael-jackson-on-the-wall/
 Petitjean, Isabelle. Dangerous – from Mark Ryden to Michael Jackson 2016 https://www.amazon.com/Dangerous-Mark-Ryden-Michael-Jackson/dp/2752103042
 Juxtapoz Art & Culture “Sound And Vision: Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous,” cover artwork by Mark Ryden” published online July 2, 2018 https://www.juxtapoz.com/news/music/sound-and-vision-michael-jackson-s-dangerous-cover-artwork-by-mark-ryden/
 Kehinde Wiley’s official website entry for “Equestrian Portrait of King Phillip II (Michael Jackson)” 2010 https://www.kehindewiley.com/misc2010/Equestrian_Portrait_MJ.html
 Cunningham, Vinson. “Kehinde Wiley On Painting Masculinity And Blackness, From President Obama To The People Of Ferguson” dated 22 Oct 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/kehinde-wiley-on-painting-president-obama-michael-jackson-and-the-people-of-ferguson
 The Art Story “Artists: Kehinde Wiley” https://www.theartstory.org/artist/wiley-kehinde/
 EMMA. “Michael Jackson On the Wall. Check out the exhibition: King of Pop” https://emmamuseum.fi/popin-kuningas/ Page 3.
 Kehinde Wiley official website. The Chancellor Seguier on Horseback, 2005 http://kehindewiley.com/Rumors_of_War/Chancellor_Seguier_on_Horseback.html
 Song Facts “Do You Know Where Your Children Are by Michael Jackson” https://www.songfacts.com/facts/michael-jackson/do-you-know-where-your-children-are
Hennigan, Kerry. “The Impact of Genius: Michael Jackson On the Wall at the EMMA, Finland, Part 1. MJ Studies Today XLVIX (16-01-2020).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 7, no. 2 (2020). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xlvix/
EMMA. “Michael Jackson: On the Wall presents contemporary artists’ explorations of Michael Jackson as a phenomenon” dated 20 Aug 2019 https://emmamuseum.fi/en/for-the-media/
Connelly, Laura. “Final commissioned portrait of Michael Jackson by Kehinde Wiley makes its debut in the UK” dated 29 Jun 2018 https://www.creativeboom.com/inspiration/final-commissioned-portrait-of-michael-jackson-by-kehinde-wiley-makes-its-debut-in-the-uk/
“88,748” photo compilation by Kerry Hennigan from her own photographs taken at the EMMA, October 2019.