Kehinde Wiley’s painting show, Down, at Deitch Gallery’s Wooster Street space, has the unique effect of stretching time – taking you back a couple of centuries while keeping a foot firmly planted in the present. The most immediate impression of the show is its monumentality. The space itself is cavernous, better suited to showing large sculpture or installations rather than paintings. But Wiley’s paintings range from large to ginormous (up to 300” wide), and look entirely proper in the gallery — even the awkward platform viewing area reached by steps.
The title refers to the fact that all of the figures in these paintings are of “fallen characters” painted by old masters such as Velasquez and Mantegna, and other less-known technical wizards such as Maderno and Clesinger. Some of the subjects simply recline in sleep or repose; others are dead. They include religious figures: The Veiled Christ and The Virgin Martyr St. Cecelia, as well as subjects of formal or societal interest. It is refreshing to see the original painters, whose work inspired this series, credited in each caption, as often such sources are not.
As with Wiley’s previous work, his models are young African American men. Dee and Ricky Jackson, two previous painting subjects, “cast” the paintings, making for an interesting twist on collaboration. All of the men wear contemporary urban clothing, down to the briefs-baring low slung jeans and colorful Nikes. These figure in repose contrast with a past series of Wiley’s that places men in heroic poses.
The juxtaposition of the tragic, martyr pose and the guy you see on the subway is fodder for thought. Heroes and martyrs can be people not all that different from us. The person you pass on the street may save your soul, or your life. And in New York, it often takes just a bit of bad luck to turn some folks next door into martyrs.
As if the primary content of Wiley’s paintings weren’t enough, there is the whole technical and formal aspect to consider. Wiley’s painting technique is amazing, clean, precise, impressive by even the most finicky of discerning classicists. Wiley also plays with spatial perception in certain paintings by taking the elaborate foliage patterns of the wallpaper and floating it between the human subject and us, selectively negating areas of the repeating patterns to frame the person. Sometimes it’s elegiac, and other times playful. But it’s all engrossing and of the moment.
Source imagery: Jean-Antoine Houdon, Photo credit: Max Yawney, Courtesy of Deitch Projects.