Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. Brooklyn Museum
(200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn), until May 24th
For many years now I have been a member of the anti-Kehinde Wiley club. It is a large club, easy to join, over-populated even, and always taking on new members. It is a membership I have worn with pride. Not with very much nuance, mind you, but with real pride. The main complaint is that Wiley is a one-trick pony with an army of assistants churning out paintings in ornate frames for collectors and museums with money to burn. As Deborah Solomon observed in a recent profile of Wiley in the New York Times, Wiley “has his share of critics who say his work is formulaic and repetitive. Whether he’s working in oil or watercolor, he deploys the same strategy of inserting dark-skinned figures into very white masterpieces of the past.” Those are valid critiques. That is exactly what Wiley does.
The narrative of Wiley’s mid-career retrospective, A New Republic, at the Brooklyn Museum, though, is that Wiley has branched out. He may have achieved staggering success, but he has not rested on the laurels of his precociousness. Wiley still uses the template of Western, White art history, inserting Black men in the place Whites would have occupied, but can claim stained glass, sculpture, and even small Hans Memling-style portraits as part of his expanded artistic repertoire. Wiley also paints women now. The sculpture and stained glass are fine. They seem a natural enough progression, if a little boring. The Memling portraits are interesting, if not as powerful as his monumental paintings. The paintings of women (a series known as An Economy of Grace) are essentially the same as his paintings of men, but less sensual, their energy more subdued.
The problem with, and possibly the success of, A New Republic is that it reminds us that Wiley really only has one trick, and this trick has allowed him to become as much a brand as an artist. Wiley himself even said, “Let’s face it, I make really high-priced luxury goods for wealthy consumers.” If one is at all familiar with contemporary art, especially painting, Wiley’s success (he is not yet thirty-eight) is a source of real consternation. He graduated with an MFA from Yale in 2001, immediately started a residency at the Studio Museum of Harlem, that kingmaker of young, Black, New York artists, and had his first solo show with Jeffrey Deitch in 2003. Wiley’s career is intriguing because it is so young and so staggeringly successful. Though maybe that’s also why there is so much disdain for him. Here, in the United States, we hate the young and successful. We want people to struggle because we assume struggle builds character. As if failure teaches us anything other than pain. The art world is no different. Perhaps it is even a little more jealous of those who take off like rockets. Young artists are cautioned against too much early success – it might spoil them and when they come crashing back down to earth the reentry will destroy them. This is probably true, the art world is littered with the broken careers of those that tasted success at a young age and were then cast aside. It is a vicious place. Older artists are venerated if they have achieved stature either in the art world or the greater society, but if they are still plugging along at the age of forty-five it is often considered too late for them. Young artists are loved for their youth and brio. They are scorned for their success.
Yet perhaps we have been unkind to Wiley. I know I have been guilty of not thinking more deeply about his work, of not looking past the slick and lushly painted imagery. Wiley’s one trick really might be enough. For when he deals exclusively with the representation of young, American Black men his work has real power. When he leaves America, as he did with his World Stage series (in which he travelled around the world and substituted young Brazilian, Indian, Sri Lankan, Palestinian, African, Israeli, French, Jamaican, and Haitian men for his usual Afro-American subjects) his art is less convincing, replaced with a pervading feeling of gimmickry. What makes Wiley important and allows his paintings to be moving is the connection and love he feels for his subjects – the bond of being Black and being American. He understands and can empathize with his subjects because they come from the same country, even similar urban environments.
It is, nevertheless, this love and empathy that is often either ignored or misread in Wiley’s work. It is not that he just has a shtick, but there is an assumption that his paintings are in some way exploitative of their subjects, that there is a long con being pulled. Jessica Dawson, in a recent Village Voice review, likened Wiley to a predator offering young Black men some sort of promise of transcendence by putting them in the position formerly occupied by the paintings’ White subjects. She reads into Wiley’s “street-casting” – an act in which he approaches young men on the street, asks if they want to pose for his paintings, lets them pick out an image from art history that they would like to be painted into, has them pose as the subject of that original painting did, photographs them, and then recreates the painting with them as the subject – an overly sexualized and inequitable power dynamic that is not there. Dawson likens “street-casting” to a “casting couch,” and sees Wiley as some sort of pornographer. Her interpretation is silly and extreme. Wiley is neither a predator nor a pornographer. Dawson, however, does hint at complaints that Wiley’s work often elicits, that it is in some way a relationship of exploitation. I used to side on the more benign spectrum of this criticism. There appeared to me something in Wiley that harnessed the aspirations of young Black men in a way that served to exploit them.
I now believe I was wrong. I would not call myself a convert, but there is more to Wiley than I was originally willing to admit. Many will continue not to like him, they will see things in much the same way Dawson does, probably in a more gentle way – she has been accused of being both racist and libelous – but the feeling will be similar. This is a mistake. There is much at the Brooklyn Museum to prompt a reconsideration of Wiley’s project. Wiley’s actors may assume poses chosen from images of classical European painting, but they are neither victimized nor are they transformed into something other than themselves. The MSNBC pundit Touré wrote, in an elegant short essay in A New Republic’s catalog, that Wiley’s paintings allow for young, urban Black men to be seen as individual men and not as members of the “plantation of criminal expectations and fearful permutations – repatriating images, spiriting them up north where they can get the respect they deserve and be free. It’s revolutionary work Kehinde is doing, but the real revolution is not happening with his brushes but within his mind, where he sees us as beautiful and then figures out how to get the world to see that.”
By inserting young Black men into the world of “Old Master” painting, Wiley does not in fact “complicate” the history of Western art, as has been argued by critics and art historians. Nor does he address some missing part of art history’s narrative. To fault the Old Masters is an empty and fruitless task. The absence of Black faces in the paintings that Wiley draws from is not a problem of cultural insensitivity or racism, it is instead an instance of anachronism, a reading back into time of our own prejudices, guilt, and needs. I disagree with Holland Cotter’s contention that, in Wiley’s art “people once excluded from Western art, or reduced to the role of servants, are now in command.” There is exclusion in art history, but Wiley is not capable rectifying the situation. It is a Whiggish undertaking to divide the history of art into, to quote Herbert Butterfield, the “friends and enemies of progress.” The record cannot be set straight, past sins cannot be painted away. What Wiley does is paint young, urban-American, Black men as young, urban-American, Black men.
I am not sure if what Wiley is doing is revolutionary, that might be asking too much of any artwork. Though I would argue that the very act, the casting, the photographing, the looking through art history books and picking out the image to be painted as, the painting itself, adds up to an act of love, perhaps even a “spiriting up north.” I realize this may be a stretch, but I believe love is a key component of Wiley’s paintings. It was the Left Hegelian, Ludwig Feuerbach, who wrote in 1843 that, “Love is passion, and only passion is the hallmark of existence. Only that exists which is an object – be it real or possible – of passion.” Wiley’s posers are objects of passion, both his and theirs. The men are given existence in a way usually denied to them. This is not to imply that before Wiley painted them these men did not exist. Rather, the very act of painting them as historical or legendary figures removes them from the anonymous life of their American cities and reinforces the reality of their humanness, what Ralph Ellison, in 1968, referred to as Black America’s “enduring faith in their own style of American humanity.” Wiley makes them real as men, not as some amalgam of Black men. He loves them in a way that is not bound up with pity or patronizing sentimentality, he loves them because of their beauty and their place in American society. This love is also transformative. It is a love that makes them real and in some way imaginary. They become idealized versions of themselves, freed from the weight of their existence as young, American Black men.
“Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war,” James Baldwin wrote in 1962, “and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation make freedom real.” Baldwin was concerned in particular with the role of the artist in America. He believed that American artists were required to make known all the “uncharted chaos” that America seeks to suppress, and blaze a trail into the darkness that is the soul of American history. In doing so, by attempting to bring America to itself, the artist might push us towards a more humane life.
I am not claiming that Wiley is the personification of Baldwin’s artist – I am merely suggesting that the project Wiley set forth for himself, the project that began in 2003 with Passing/Posing, is a project that operates under a language of love and recovery. Wiley does not always succeed – often his work is simply boring (World Stage) or not quite ambitious enough (his paintings of women). But when Wiley is on, when the work is alive and vibrant, when he sticks to the United States and ignores his global longings, he reveals to us the humanity of Black men in this country. At its best, Wiley’s art really is a lover’s war, and if that is his one trick, then it is a worthwhile one.