One of the dubious distinctions of contemporary art is its omnivorous absorption and regurgitation of virtually any and every form ever practiced. There is almost nothing, it seems, that cannot be co-opted and transmuted into a 21st century Art Product. Still, some traditions would seem to be less malleable than others: 18th-century portraiture, for example, consisting of formal and highly stylized pictures of royals and nobility, exuding power and status. The Huntington Library in Los Angeles has galleries full of such paintings. As a young boy growing up in South Central LA, African-American artist Kehinde Wiley frequented those galleries in conjunction with the free weekend art classes in which his mother had enrolled him. Of the experience Wiley said, “It was sheer spectacle, and of course beauty. I had no way of digesting it. But at the same time, there was this desire to somehow possess it or belong to it.”
After earning his MFA at Yale in 2001, Wiley moved to New York where he soon began to making the paintings for which he is now celebrated: gorgeous canvases featuring young black and brown men in the heroic poses of dukes and kings, generals and saints. Wiley finds his magnetically handsome models through “street-casting,” first in New York and now in cities all over the world. He photographs his subjects in the studio in poses of their choice, selected from stacks of art history books. In closely rendered images based on these photographs, these avatars of the power of beauty (or the beauty of power) gaze unblinkingly at their viewers, faces and bodies surrounded by a profusion of colorful decorative elements that refuse to stay in the background, winding around and across parts of the figure.
Since 2006, Wiley has utilized this format for a multi-part project called The World Stage, “an exploration of diasporas, identity, cultural hybridity and power,” which has traveled the globe: to China, Africa, Brazil, India, the Middle East and, most recently, France. In the paintings from 2010-11 featured in The World Stage: Israel, the troubling friction between the different cultures that co-exist in that small country magically disappears. Ethiopian Jews (emigrants to Israel in the ‘90s), Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs appear side by side on the gallery walls, slightly larger than life-sized, in logo T-shirts and baggy shorts or sagging pants, all integrated into gleaming backgrounds filled with brilliant colors and patterns.
The paintings—small, medium and large — ranging from headshots to double portraits of almost full figures, are punctuated with historical objects from The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley and the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles. Exquisite paper cuts, embroidery and other examples of decorative mastery are reminders of the way in which Wiley has drawn inspiration from similar Judaica for the backgrounds in this series. Even the frames were specially designed. At the top of each are carved tablets containing Hebrew text: the Ten Commandments on portraits of Jews; Rodney King’s plaintive plea to LA rioters (“Can we all get along?”) on pictures of Arabs.
Several paintings in this exhibition feature Kalkidan Mashash, a well-known Ethiopian Jewish hip hop artist in Israel. Literally a prince of popular culture, he seems to play a less anonymous role than Wiley’s previous models in this series. All the men pictured here are identified by name, a departure from other World Stage works where titles (such as Bonaparte at the Great Mosque of Cairo) identify the source of each pose. In any case, Wiley's attraction to hip hop royalty has some history; in 2005, he portrayed figures such as LL Kool J, Ice T and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five for a show at the National Portrait Gallery.
The backgrounds of these paintings are intricate and gorgeous. The way in which details flow over the figures makes parts of the composition that wouldn’t necessarily seem dynamic or interesting appear more so. Modern clothing isn’t as full of folds or texture as the garments worn in aristocratic portraiture, after all. In Benediter Brkou, the rectangular image on the front of his T-shirt is echoed in a repeating, stacked motif behind him, as floral decoration creeps over his plaid pants like embroidery. Similarly, the pale blue tracery of an intricate paper cut design softens and enriches the vanilla expanse of white T-shirt in David Ayelin. In a picture like Alios Itzhak, the blue and gold of floral decoration riots across the picture, almost overwhelming the figure, suggesting, perhaps, the way in which Wiley’s figures are imbedded in genuine and unique cultural contexts. Alternatively, and less charitably, this fantastic efflorescence of color and pattern makes the subject matter more palatable to collectors.
The sheer number of complex, highly-detailed works Wiley completes in a year suggests that the studios he now keeps in Beijing and New York are workshops in the Old Master sense of the word, where assistants complete a substantial amount of each canvas under his supervision. There is no diminishment of quality, but a prolonged visit to Wiley’s website can be a numbing experience nevertheless. One thing a visit to the show helps clarify is the entirely self-conscious relationship this work has with a kind of political propaganda painting. However handsome these message-laden images are, they exude the same kind of power we see in the work of court painters like Peter Paul Rubens or Diego Velazquez. Thus, looking up to these erotically winsome, barely-men whose poses reveal the undersides of their chins and noses, we can’t help but notice that they are looking down at us, and that subtext makes one feel uneasy.
Is this work political? Though the automatic answer would seem to be yes, its currency is beauty and youth—the coin of the realm for pop culture. Hanging on the walls of the wealthy (almost every painting in the show is part of a private collection, including one belonging to Lance Armstrong) can these pictures really change the dialogue around race? And, finally, is it enough to look like a representation of power to become powerful? Why not re-invent images of power, rather than co-opting or rehabilitating them, in a hybrid form of George Romney-meets-Socialist-Realism? Whatever the answers are, Wiley’s paintings do the same kind of thing that Kara Walker's work often does: they allow white people to experience the sting of racial guilt and enjoy it at the same time, encouraging many return visits. In some ways, that's a good thing. Ten years into his foray into power portraits, Wiley doesn’t seem to have begun to exhaust either the possible subjects or the appetite of collectors for his work. It will take another decade to determine what place—and what influence—his portraits will have in the same history of painting that he so adroitly mines.
Kehinde Wiley: “The World Stage: Israel”, @ the Contemporary Jewish Museum, through May 27, 2013.
About the Author
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 60 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an assistant professor at California College of the Arts in the graduate program in Fine Arts.