Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 28, 2016
Eugenie Tsai, ed. Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic Exh. cat. New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2015. 192 pp.; 122 color ills. Cloth $49.95 (9783791354309)
Exhibition schedule: Brooklyn Museum, New York, February 20–May 24, 2015

Kehinde Wiley’s lavish paintings demand a lushly illustrated and deeply contemplated exhibition catalogue, which is what Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic provides. It frames the artist’s oeuvre, beginning with his residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001, and spans his recent developments and the increasingly global scope of his art. The volume joins a considerable body of illustrated book-length attention to the artist, and avoids the more conventional exhibition catalogue format of themed chapters or single-author commentary. Instead it includes two introductory essays followed by succinct interpretations by thirty-five invited commentators. This approach allows multiple voices to frame and decipher this popular and highly visible artist. Contributors include art historians and museum curators, as well as poets, literary writers, and a range of cultural critics. The introductory essays by Eugenie Tsai and Connie H. Choi situate Wiley’s place within art history and criticism, while the many commentaries open up the larger complexities and contradictions of his work, making this book a vital scholarly contribution.

The essays constituting Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic display broad perspectives and concerns, carefully negotiating Wiley’s work as representation vis-à-vis the political realities of the bodies he portrays. While Wiley’s art attracts the viewer through its magnificent surface qualities, the range of reactions to his work illuminates the many personal and subjective responses a viewer brings to it. The catalogue recognizes the value of differing viewpoints to understanding Wiley’s work, and posits that his complexity is best served by multiple and often competing voices rather than orderly summation.

Wiley’s engagement with and challenges to European art history are abundantly clear and repeatedly cited in almost any discussion of his work. Particularly interesting is when writers probe deeply into how viewers might better understand the sitter in Wiley’s work, rather than the canonical art that her or his presence confronts. Multiple contributors are stimulated by the individual conditions facing the young black men in his compositions, including cultural critic Touré. Touré focuses his essay on Mugshot Study (2006), a portrait inspired by a New York Police Department mug shot that the artist found while walking near the Studio Museum in Harlem. Referencing this work, Touré writes, “Maybe if others had seen this boy as innocent, as a boy of potential, as someone who deserved the benefit of the doubt, as someone who wasn’t a problem—maybe if he’d lived a life filled with people seeing him in the generous way that Kehinde did, then maybe he wouldn’t now be on this wanted poster” (52). Touré importantly draws attention to the world outside of the canvas and the relationship between real bodies and image making. He notes that Wiley “rescues” the man from the space of criminality, yet implicit in his essay is the idea that the artist can rescue the image but not the man.

Negotiating between real bodies and their representation in Wiley’s canvases seems to be one of the greatest challenges that his work offers. In her introduction to the catalogue, Tsai notes the popularity of Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) at the Brooklyn Museum, which is prominently displayed in its lobby. Pondering its appeal, she writes, “Perhaps it is the odd sense of dissonance between the contemporary black male subject, who could have walked in from the neighborhood this morning, and the title of the work, which identifies the subject as a renowned European general from the historical past” (10). This incongruity is certainly worth noting, but her comment also pushes us to question the likelihood of finding this young man in the Brooklyn Museum outside of Wiley’s painting. As Bridget R. Cooks explores in Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011), African American viewers and artists have a historically fraught relationship to the history and decision-making apparatuses of the art museum. While the Brooklyn Museum’s purchase and display of art by black Americans is an important method of encouraging African American viewership, it does not disrupt the association of the art museum with particular racial and class boundaries. Wiley’s work tends to foreground black working-class youth, a population with an uncertain relationship to the fine arts museum. Does displaying a Wiley change this situation? One would hope, but again the leap between representation and real bodies is tenuous.

Writers from multiple disciplines have addressed the shift beginning around the late 1980s in the consumption of hip-hop music from predominantly African American audiences to increasingly white, middle-class suburbanites. In many ways, Wiley’s work extends this phenomenon through painting. As noted in hip-hop scholarship, white consumption of black art forms does not necessarily translate into greater acceptance of the basic humanity of black Americans. While the steady incarceration of and brutality against black youth signals a humanitarian crisis, it is widely positioned as a problem with policing rather than the product of a larger institutionalized system, a “new Jim Crow,” as Michelle Alexander writes. Like hip-hop music, a buyer can consume Wiley’s images while enjoying the safety of distance from the subject on display. Viewers might enjoy seeing the man in the painting, and the irony of him depicted there, but does the viewer feel the same way—feelings of affirmation, love, and appreciation of his beauty—when encountering him on the street? This is the larger question Wiley’s canvases compel.

Yet his images carry significant transformative power. For many, his canvases offer a representational space that transcends the grittiness and struggles of life. Tumelo Mosaka writes, “If we do not see images of black subjects presented as embodiments of power, beauty, and confidence, it is then much more difficult to imagine ourselves in those roles” (49). Mosaka perceives the work as enabling power and affirmation. Franklin Sirmans likewise locates “beauty in the everyday” and a certain universality in Wiley’s work, stating, “Wiley’s standing figures and sitters are a collective us, in our shared contemporaneity, living and walking in the cities of the world, yesterday, today, and tomorrow” (45). Sirmans describes the work not as divisive or political but rather as having the power to speak to universals; in this way the viewer may identify with the men in the canvas rather than seeing them as representative of a particular racial, class, or cultural formation. Similarly, Rebecca Walker welcomes Wiley’s uprooting of gender signifiers, finding a certain “postgendered” space within the canvas. For these contributors, the canvas allows for transcendence from the limitations or particularities of stable identities.

Steven Nelson, Kobena Mercer, and David J. Getsy address sexuality in Wiley’s work, noting the relationship between the artist and his subjects, but also the intimacy between his subjects. Nelson writes of precedents to Wiley’s work in African sculpture and more recent photography by Nigeria artist Iké Udé, noting the important “portrayal of intimacy between men and the haziness that often exists between homosocial bonding and homosexual relationships” (75). Nelson investigates the depth of the characters of the canvas, while Mercer contemplates the work’s surface, emphasizing the paintings’ extreme flatness and artifice. Mercer writes, “Setting black male figures loose from prevailing codes that fix their image as a problem in need of solution, Wiley joins company with performative traditions in black diaspora self-fashioning in which the power to play with surface appearances was a matter of life and death wherever masking ensured survival in a hostile world” (81). For Mercer, Wiley represents black youth in a manner that speaks to the viewer in an accessible language, yet he encourages new interpretations by challenging familiar codes. Kevin D. Dumouchelle notes the “distance between artist and subject” conveyed through Wiley’s elaborate patterning (79), while Mercer welcomes the ways in which the floral patterning “introduces something a little queer” (81). The supine black male bodies in the Down series (2007–9) convey sexual allure, while simultaneously suggesting death. Getsy writes, “The Down paintings are often erotic, but they are also grand paintings that refuse to allow the bodies they represent to be easily dominated” (89). Drawing attention to surface technique and scale, these writers communicate the ways in which Wiley’s men convey power and intimacy even in their intimation of death.

Although Wiley is particularly known for his images of black male youth, since 2006 he has directed his attention to rendering global subjects, and he began portraying women in 2012. Lee Ambrozy explicates the cultural specificities of Wiley’s work, investigating the artist’s nod to modern Chinese precedents in poster art, Socialist Realism, and Qing dynasty decorative arts in his The World Stage: China project (2006–7). Wiley’s projections deny the instant readability of their sources, however, complicating our evaluation of the subject within the space. Ambrozy writes, “The ambiguous gaze and framing of Wiley’s subjects project a message obscured by polysemy” (64–66). Wiley’s citations thus deny the sense of closure and clear meaning intended by their original source. Venus Lau likewise suggests that Wiley refutes the utopian vision of the Maoist images he mines by positioning his subject not as distanced from “the people” but rather as one with them. She writes, “The figure in the picture, although posing like a people’s hero in the Maoist narrative, no longer signifies the distance between the spectator and the utopia yet to come. . . . Instead, he remains among the viewers” (66). In this way, Lau understands Wiley as creating a connection and sameness between subject and viewer, finding within Wiley’s work the ability for the anonymous individual to stand in for a larger body rather than emphasizing difference.

The complexities of Wiley’s work are highlighted in segments when multiple commentators address a single image. For example, analyses of The White Slave (2010) by Murtaza Vali, Beth Citron, and Megha Ralapati illuminate the intricacies of this single work. Contributors explore its layered relationship to Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ’s 1888 painting of the same title and locate within the work a place in which “the postcolonial subject freely asserts his independence” (102). Approaching the canvases through distinct perspectives, all three illuminate the ways in which Wiley brings socio-economic class, race, spirituality, history, relationships of power, and global exchange to the foreground of an individual painting, creating an assessment much larger than “merely a brown substitution for a European original” (104).

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic presents a broad picture of Wiley’s work and his increasingly global perspective and influences. Its greatest contribution to understanding his oeuvre is its varied and sometimes competing voices, rather than singular perspectives or narratives. The book’s diverse set of essays laudably communicates the palimpsest of meaning behind Wiley’s luminous surfaces.

Phoebe Wolfskill
Associate Professor, Department of American Studies and African American and African Diaspora Studies, Indiana University