Patterns of Representation

Kehinde Wiley has arrived at the next stage of his development with “The World Stage: Africa, Lagos ~ Dakar” at The Studio Museum in Harlem.

poster for Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley "The World Stage: Africa, Lagos ~ Dakar" Exhibition

at The Studio Museum in Harlem
in the Harlem, Bronx area
This event has ended - (2008-07-16 - 2008-10-26)

In Reviews by Samuel Holleran 2008-08-29 print

Mention Kehinde Wiley to some people in the art world, and you may get a slight sneer of derision. Since his meteoric rise to fame in 2002, critics have taken aim at Wiley for, among other things: his populist marketing, troop of studio assistants and lack of painterly skill. At a still-youthful 30, the Los Angeles native’s age has also made an easy target. Yet his work, which turns classical heroic portraiture on its head by featuring young men of color, is impossible to ignore.

In 2008, as the prospect of a black president grows increasingly tenable, many still have trouble conjuring that image. Wiley plays on this lack of visual references for black men in power. Part of what makes his work so powerful is the fact that they feature status-less black men in aristocratic settings, the potent and unsettling undertone being that in order to command respect (and big prices) in the art world and society at large, men of color needed to be dressed up in European finery.

Wiley’s populist ideals are demonstrated by his release of the 2006 painting, Portrait of Andries Stilte, on towels from the Midwestern mass merchandiser Target (along with towels by Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons as part of the “Works on Whatever” project). Wiley’s image (wrought in pure cotton), features a pose cribbed from a 1640 painting of a member of the Haarlem Civic Guard by Johannes Verspronck. He cleverly switches the portly Dutch patroon for a street-styled man bearing a similar cane, only switching the frock coat for an XXL Harlem Globetrotters jersey. In these witty moments we see why Wiley went from Yale grad student to art star in just a few short years.

The classically styled paintings that helped make Kehinde Wiley an art world favorite were first seen by the masses at the Brooklyn Museum in his 2004 solo show, “Passing/Posing.” These works show us bling-wearing men of America’s abandoned inner cities occupying the lush patterns and overwrought posses of Titian and Tinteretto. The recontextualization is jarring, and slightly cynical. Wiley fuses what the novelist Charles Johnson defines as the two prevailing representations of blackness in post-’60s America: the proud (afrocentrist and militant) and the folkloric trickster (gangsta and playa). The insertion of his subjects into a tongue-in-cheek world of sartorial style, rich patterning and unlimited power is both a proud critique of European wealth and a sly jab at art viewers (black and white) who are both fascinated by and terrified of “the hood” and its residents.

In the six years since “Passing/Posing,” Wiley has focused his attention on the global ‘hood with limited success. The first incarnation of “The World Stage” was set in China and featured Wiley’s subjects standing in for Cultural Revolution-era youth. The danger of this reinterpretation—taking fetishized African-American men on tour—is that in the context of China, detailed patterns and recycled poses become an aesthetic device, not a discussion-provoking tool. The follow-up show, “The World Stage: Africa, Lagos ~ Dakar,” on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem, represents a return to form and is a testament to the artist’s evolving skill as a lurid colorist and patterning wizard par excellence.

Rubin Singleton, 2007
Oil on canvas, 8 x 6 ft.
Courtesy artist and Deitch ProjectsKehinde Wiley
Ibrahima Sacho
26 x 22 inches
oil on canvas
Courtesy the artist and Deitch Projects

By casting young men from Lagos and Dakar, Wiley avoids some of the pitfalls of his China show; namely, sampling a little too much Communist kitsch. The heroic posing and oversized canvases work well to represent men who, while struggling, are deeply grounded and proud. Dogon Couple, an eight by seven foot piece featuring two sitting men shows off the artist’s formal skill. Like the classical paintings that Wiley cribs his posses from, it is a testament to luster and reflection. The man on the right wears a glossy Puma jersey, and the green, red and gold of Senegal’s national soccer team leaps out from the painting’s swirling orange background and the sitter’s dark blue and purple-hued skin. Other works in the show feature men clad in traditional clothes, t-shirts and AC Milan jerseys. The traditional African patterns in the background often bubble up into the foreground.

Though the exhibition is a success, one can’t help but feel that Wiley’s interweaving of youth in jerseys with traditional African patterns is lacking the critical oomph of his earlier work. Kehinde Wiley need not carry the burden of negotiating racial stereotypes on his shoulders. The Lagos ~ Dakar leg of his global tour, while visually compelling, lacks the wry playfulness and in-your-face juxtapositions that once made his paintings such a pleasure and a surprise.

Samuel Holleran

Samuel Holleran. Samuel Holleran is an illustrator, graphic artist, and cartoonist. He studied at the New School and the Universiteit van Amsterdam, and is currently at the Cooper Union. Having written on the history of the radical right in the Netherlands, reporting on the arts comes as a great pleasure. His interests include backgammon and (all varieties of) food. » See other writings

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