Saturday, February 21, 2015

Kehinde Wiley—A New Republic

Shantavia Beale II, 2012. Photo: Jason Wyche
There are many levels in appreciating Kehinde Wiley's work, the subject of an overview at the Brooklyn Museum, in a show subtitled The New Republic, through May 24. On the surface, the painting is technically impressive; his palette vibrant; the compositions energized by pattern-on-pattern. He is a perfectionist, apparent from the high level of finish in his carefully constructed frames and totality of presentation. And while he calls out the old master works after which he creates his compositions, the overall balance between central figure and secondary pattern is finely tuned. He plays with foreground and background, at times weaving floral garlands around the human subjects. (In this profile, he notes that assistants handle those elements, among other things.)

On a contextual level, Wiley is sui generis. His portraits of black people, mostly in their own clothes or modern-day dress, feature them in heroic poses patterned after classical works, including sculptures. The wall labels often feature photos of the source work, which is a welcome step in a time rampant with appropriation and unacknowledged re-use (ahem, Richard Prince). 

The Archangel Gabriel, 2014. 
Photo: Susan Yung

More than most contemporary artists, Wiley is acutely aware of art history and its religious, societal, and political beginnings. While juxtaposing modern black youth with the European cultural tradition so prevalent in American education, he is capturing his own time's people and customs of dress. A series of compact altar portraits depicts young men in saintly poses; the elaborate steepled frames are gilded in 24K gold leaf. A series of six stained glass panels similarly combine ancient ecclesiastical forms with contemporary young men. It raises questions: have these men done things to merit such sanctification? Were people who were similarly sanctified centuries before much different than you and I and the man up the block?

Femme piquée par un serpent, 2008. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery
The long central gallery contains many of Wiley's heroic, large-scale portraits. Several men sit atop horses (including Michael Jackson, in his high-late period face). A number of the paintings are from his "World Stage" series, taking classic works of art from various countries such as China, Haiti, and Turkey, subjects updated. Examples of paintings derived from sculpture include Femme piquée par un serpent (2008), based on a marble by Auguste Clésinger. The young man, underwear bared modishly, twists awkwardly, as the original female model must have, albeit even more so, nude. Wiley, however, has chosen to have the man stare directly at us. He is self-conscious, and we are self-conscious staring back. 

Colonel Platoff on His Charger, 2007.
 Photo: Susan Yung

Recent portraits of women comprise the final gallery. Until now, he has focused on young men to whom, as a gay man, he might be attracted. The depicted women, while noble and self-assured, are not asked to pose heroically, even if the source paintings are antique—as much a comment on the historical treatment of women in art as the contemporary version. 

In many of the paintings, the women simply exist amid the flora surrounding them, rather than dominate. Some wear elegant evening dresses that can be read in terms of socio-economics. Hair is sometimes done up in an elaborate beehive. A bronze sculpture, Bound (2014), features three women whose hair is braided together.

The exhibition, curated by Eugenie Tsai,  finds particular resonance at the Brooklyn Museum, where ancient culture meets broad racial diversity. Wiley's work feels like a portal in which time has collapsed, and eras are conflated. It's an exhilarating ride.  

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