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Todd Gray explores his experience as the late Michael Jackson’s personal photographer and how it defined and redefined his life in the multi-layered installation “The Gray Room,” at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery through August 31.

Gray is best known for “Before He Was King,” a 2009 book of photographs he took of the future “King of Pop” from 1979 through 1984. Those pictures are the core of this show. Gray uses them to comment on issues of identity and race by juxtaposing them with his other work: masks cut in half and reassembled in a grotesque jigsaw puzzle and “Ghost Clouds,” abstracted photographs of black models obscured by white foam cut into shapes resembling clouds. 

A young Michael Jackson in a detail from Todd Gray's installation at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery.

On one level, this arrangement imbues the photos with a religious aura, as if they are icons, something to be revered, honored, respected or even worshipped. The portraits overpower the surrounding pieces (but what can compare with Michael Jackson?), and the effect is rather bland. But it does frame the discussion Gray wants to provoke. 

Gray believes that Jackson was a shaman of sorts, whose followers gathered at his concerts to share in the ecstasy of his performances. In a telephone interview, Gray spoke of showing a picture of the pop star to some Ghanaians during an African trip. When they said, “That is my brother,” he realized that the singer was more than a celebrity. He was a transcendent figure who made connections across geography and language.

"Waiting" to go on stage, 1980.

Gray also examines Jackson’s persona through the lens of cultural imperialism, or as he puts it, “mental colonialism.” In his 1980 photo “Waiting,” a pensive Jackson, dressed and soon to go on stage, has turned away from the camera, eyes half open. The full force of the flash washes out his skin tone. His hair reflects the flash as well, showing a gathering of loose curls. This is the singer “Before He Was King,” before the physical transformation of his later years. Gray believes that Jackson was a black man who died a white man, a metamorphosis that speaks to the demeaning of blackness in Western culture — something to be washed away, cleansed, banished. The light of the flash in this photograph has begun the process that the light of fame, popularity and money would complete. The masks and “White Cloud” pieces reinforce the point.

In this context, the distorted masks make reference to such philosophers as Frantz Fanon, Audre Lorde and bell hooks, who use personal stories as political messages to frame critiques of Western culture and majority-minority relationships. Jackson’s story is doubly personal in the sense that Gray, who got called an “Oreo” in his youth, came to see his own struggles with authenticity in Jackson’s fraught racial identity.

The photographer repeats the critique in his performance piece, “Caliban in the Mirror,” which plays in an adjoining room. In one section, Gray beats out a rhythm on a hand drum while seated next to a chalkboard, while images of Jackson intermixed with racial slurs are projected on the wall above him. Later, Gray dons a large Afro wig to portray a professor conducting a mock college class on the trappings of majority culture, explaining that “theory is just shit white folks make up.”

The performance feels heavy-handed in comparison with the rest of the show. One can reach the same conclusions viewing the photos and other artwork. Consider, for example, the photographs “Beat It MJ” and “Beat It Gang,” both shot on the set of the music video “Beat It” in 1983.

Cultural colonialism at work? "Beat It MJ," from 1983.

In “Beat It MJ,” the flash has once again washed out Jackson’s skin. He looks like a specter of his 1980 self. His posture, eyes and general physical appearance show the weight of fame. Clothed in his iconic red jacket, one hand reaching across to pull up a sleeve, he is slumped slightly forward, exhausted. If one reads the image from Gray’s viewpoint, it suggests that Jackson has succumbed to cultural colonialism.

In contrast, the dancers in “Beat It Gang,” costumed in gang attire and photographed in a way that makes their skin tone darker, mimic thug postures and hand signals. Yet the postures — submission and defiance — are two sides of the same mental colonialism.

"Beat It Gang," also from the 1983 “Beat It” music video session.

Ultimately, the portraits are “The Gray Room’s” strongest elements. But the installation is sure to generate a healthy dialogue about the current state of identity politics, race relations and colonialism, as well as Jackson’s life.

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