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Image of 'An Illuminating Path' by David LaChapelle
An Illuminating Path by David LaChapelle 1998. Courtesy of the artist © David LaChapelle

Review (London): ‘Michael Jackson: On the Wall’ Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

There are still a few days to check out the “Michael Jackson: On the Wall” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The pop star’s music and life inspired a large body of artwork among international artists while he lived and continuing nine years after his death. The works of 48 artists are spread across 13 rooms, but there is much to see in the gift shop and with the Alphabet of Michael Jackson in the entry way as well. The art is diverse in their material, styles, and media for how they represent Jackson. Additionally, there’s careful attention to both the positive and more controversial aspects of his life.

As one might expect, videos play a role in the exhibit: footage of people singing his songs, concert attendees going wild, and clips of individuals performing the “Thriller” choreography. I recall one artist used clips from “Smooth Criminal,” but put the audio of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” on top. The combination worked and brought grins to a few people’s faces as they passed the monitor. There’s a room full of Andy Warhol’s works facing Jackson’s “Scream” music video on one of the walls. With regards to Warhol, it’s incredible not only to see how artists at the time were fascinated with Jackson, but how the King of Pop used elements of artists in his own work, too.

Some people may be surprised to learn just how versed Jackson was in art. One of the exhibit signs contained a paragraph all about his love for art and his interest in Michelangelo. That interest can be seen in the last commissioned portrait of Jackson, which made its U.K. debut here at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s an amazing equestrian portrait by Kehinde Wiley, who drew some visual inspiration off of master painter Peter Paul Rubens from portrait discussions with Jackson.

When I left the exhibit, I found myself wishing there was more content about the video games. I remember seeing and playing the Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker arcade and Genesis games when I was growing up. There is one small Jackson sprite on the Alphabet of Michael Jackson at “V,” since artist Donald Urquhart designated that letter for video games. The more obvious ones are in the alphabet, such as “B is for Bad.”

Video games aside, there are many other installation pieces worth your time and attention. “Michael Jackson’s Dinner Jacket” was an amusing item: a black jacket with actual cutlery attached all over. One can imagine it as a great conversation starter. Yet another room has original PR handouts about a fashion line for children in the 1980s. David LaChapelle’s “An Illuminating Path” stands out on a white wall, juxtaposed with the checkered museum floor in the physical space of the visitors. That means someone could strike their own dance pose beside LaChapelle’s work of art.

The exhibit has a couple of great interactive elements worth mentioning. Visitors should look out for the selfie spots along the route, where they can take selfies and post those to social media for a chance to win a weekly prize. With a smartphone, it’s possible to scan and listen to Jackson’s top tracks on the Spotify app, or one could bring their own Michael Jackson playlist to enjoy through their earbuds.

Anyone with young adults and children in their party will be pleased to hear that the Gallery offers special pricing for those age groups. Children who are 12 years old and younger get free admission. Five hundred tickets at only £5 are available every day to individuals 25 and under.

The National Portrait Gallery in London is located at St. Martin’s Place by Trafalgar Square. “Michael Jackson: On the Wall” will be there through Sunday, October 21.

Note: Per National Portrait Gallery’s “Conditions of Use,” we cannot reproduce the images on our homepage, Twitter, and Facebook. Thank you.

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros earned a B.A. in Art History on a full scholarship at the University of Virginia. Pat is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C., but she's also covered events in Canada and London. Highlights in her work include articles on Ian McKellen and Mark Rylance, as well as memorable interviews with Lawrence Gowan of Styx, Tony Bennett, and Kiefer Sutherland. At Awesome Con 2017, Pat moderated a Q&A for voice actors Sean Schemmel and Christopher Sabat.

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