All is Fair in Love and Art Criticism?
Maybe or Maybe Not
A Sexually Predatory Cover? Or Exquisitely Wrought Art with Academic Reference and Contemporary Relevance?
Does recent commentary about Kehinde Wiley cross the line from critical analysis to tirade and character assassination?
A firestorm of reaction and commentary recently erupted online and elsewhere among arts professionals and the general public regarding "What to Make of Kehinde Wiley's Pervy Brooklyn Museum Retrospective?," a March 11, 2015 Village Voice exhibition review by Jessica Dawson on artist Kehinde Wiley’s Brooklyn Museum exhibition, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic (February 20 – May 24, 2015). The museum’s description of the exhibition explains:
Wiley's signature portraits of everyday men and women riff on specific paintings by Old Masters, replacing the European aristocrats depicted in those paintings with contemporary black subjects, drawing attention to the absence of African Americans from historical and cultural narratives.
The subjects in Wiley's paintings often wear sneakers, hoodies, and baseball caps, gear associated with hip-hop culture, and are set against contrasting ornate decorative backgrounds that evoke earlier eras and a range of cultures.
Through the process of "street casting," Wiley invites individuals, often strangers he encounters on the street, to sit for portraits. In this collaborative process, the model chooses a reproduction of a painting from a book and reenacts the pose of the painting’s figure. By inviting the subjects to select a work of art, Wiley gives them a measure of control over the way they're portrayed.
Dawson assails Wiley’s art and "pervy" (i.e. perverted) motives in her exhibition review claiming he is a sexual predator who lures his black male subjects to portrait sittings in the mode of old school casting couch directors; that he offers the public ‘politically-correct’ fantasy as opposed to reality or actual empowerment in likening black males to historically celebrated white male subjects from art history; and that his 15 year artistic oeuvre is basically a slick marketing ploy that has seduced the public into overlooking what underlies the artist’s malevolent production:
…In the early 2000s, after he graduated from Yale, Wiley did a residency at the Studio Museum and began inviting men he met on the streets into his studio to pose…What Wiley and his subjects do behind the scenes may be none of our business, but his paintings kiss and tell…
… Where once was a powerful white man, Wiley inserts a firm piece of African-American flesh. Where white power aggrandized itself in official state portraiture, now young blacks from the ghetto, the ones newspaper headlines insist are without future and en route to incarceration, straddle stallions. What does it mean to put a young black man on a horse and call him Napoleon? If it isn't dangling a fantasy and false hope, then at least it implies that young urban blacks are in desperate need of uplift. You call that empowerment?
…in his fifteen-year career, this is his second solo at the Brooklyn Museum — Wiley has proven himself a canny operator seducing an art public cowed by political correctness and willing to gloss over the more lurid implications of the 38-year-old artist's production.
In defense of Wiley and in direct response to Jessica Dawson’s review, Jillian Steinhauser in “What to Make of the Village Voice’s Offensive Kehinde Wiley Review?", Hyperallergic, March 13, 2015, challenges Dawson’s views on Wiley as homophobic and racist:
…So, is Wiley predatory because he invites men whom he meets on the street into his studio — a perfectly legitimate and widespread artistic practice?...
...Is he predatory because he paints his subjects in a sexualized manner? Because he’s also a man, painting them in a sexualized manner? Because they might even have sex? How is any of this not homophobic?...
… Clearly, there is something about the sexualization of black men that offends or frightens Dawson. From the vagueness of her writing and the broadness of her generalizations, it’s hard to tell if it’s the “sexualization” or the “black men” part….
And, a more conventional, measured review of Wiley’s Brooklyn Museum exhibition appears in Roberta Smith's February 19, 2005 New York Times review, " ‘Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic’ at the Brooklyn Museum”:
…When it comes to art history, Mr. Wiley has not only scores to settle but also possibilities to explore. He sees this terrain as ripe with potential, a revisionist approach that he shares with artists as diverse as Nicole Eisenman, Dana Schutz, Carroll Dunham, John Currin and especially Mickalene Thomas, who also inserts black women into art history (and with a degree of painterly innovation that exceeds Mr.Wiley… Mr. Wiley also belongs to a tradition of Pop Art-infused figuration that includes Mel Ramos, Wayne Thiebaud and Barkley L. Hendricks. And he owes something to the flamboyance and painting-consciousness of artists from the 1980s, especially the slyly layered images of David Salle and the sampled patterns of Philip Taaffe…
IRAAA+ contributing writer John Welch invited comments on Kehinde Wiley and the critical reception of his current exhibition as an open forum on Wiley's art and the ways his critical reception adheres to or departs from ‘so-called’ objective criticism. For instance, did Jessica Dawson’s now controversial review cross the line into complete subjectivity?
Following are thoughts on these and other questions in the order they were received from contributors
(Note: Some contributors capitalized "b" in the racial designation, "black," but to be consisted with the IRAAA style, the letter was made lower case here unless, of course, the word is at the beginning of a sentence.)
Jillian Steinhauser rightly states the obvious re: studio portrait/figure painting for centuries, namely that such practice is inherently voyeuristic and manipulative/part of the constellation, exacerbated in photography, often employed in tandem, as in Wiley's case. Roberta Smith hit on something with the Rockwell reference (although she was not this explicit), i.e., many people simply like/d and relate/d emotionally to his art—which, with time and revisionist critical trends, has become part of the “art” in his collective work. Similarly, Wiley could not be more out about all of his methods and intentions, which infuses his oeuvre (thus far) with a kind of authenticity—or at least sincerity—that is as crucially charismatic as the basic design elements in his painting (color; pattern; realist figuration) that have wide appeal.
—Jody B. Cutler, art writer; teaches art history at St. John’s University
Dawson's review is a much less cautious, but accurate assessment of Wiley's art and career. If you compare the substance of her review with that of Roberta Smith's, they essentially look at the paintings in the social context delimited, to the extent that they can be, by Wiley. They both consider how Wiley's work functions in the machinery of the art world. Dawson compares Wiley to Thomas Kincaid; Smith compares Wiley to Koons. Those comparisons are about those artists' (and Wiley's) ability to recognize and manipulate a market. Dawson admits that Wiley is successful at this. Smith goes as far as to invoke Warhol as a model art world strategist by which Wiley's work (as a salesman-artist) in its entirety can be understood. Deborah Solomon in a profile piece for the New York Times Art & Design section is compassionate and thoughtful in her writing about Wiley. However, regarding his latest exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum, her piece closes with this non-committal evaluation: "In all fairness, he is only 37, which is still young for an artist." Solomon's NYT piece was likely a response to a pr notice from the The Brooklyn Museum or from Sean Kelly Gallery that represents Wiley's work in New York. Solomon's piece was published in January of this year just before the opening of the exhibition at the museum.
The consensus from detractors and supporters alike is that Wiley's efforts are legible, and function within what for now seems like very narrow conceptual bandwith. For supporters it really comes down to self-representation that affirms the social worth of urban black youth. Everyone with good sense believes that that is important. His appropriations of "masterworks" from European art history are expressive of his erudition. His productivity and economic success is appreciated, of course, by our materialist society. But the accelerated market acceptance of his work is also emblematic of (prideful and blind) liberal progress in art (cf Jean Michel Basquiat's famous quip in a painting from 1982 "...obnoxious liberals...").
This would all be fair enough, if all involved were a bit more honest about what they are looking at in these paintings. For Wiley's detractors, primarily the paintings have become repetitive. However conceptually fertile his choices of subject matter and content may be, the images indulge very little if any mystery. Everything is on the surface. We know what they mean. What at one point was a striking critique on the history of art, and really, on Western historical lore, has now almost been reduced to parody, and unintentionally so. Two things are fueling Wiley's continued career success. Black life is contested in America. Wiley is willing to continue to feed the market sugary pills made of that reality.
What Dawson and Smith each failed to share (which I think is important for Wiley and his supporters to hear) is how Wiley's work holds up against other African American artists that are deeply invested in black culture, and/or, looking for critical redress in art history and Western history generally speaking. It is certainly interesting to situate a view on Wiley's work through the lens of "Pop Art-infused figuration" (Smith), but Wiley's project is one of black empowerment (or lack thereof) and social critique. There is sexual codification as well. Without those components there is nothing to talk about in Wiley's paintings. He admits that he's not really interested in painting. In the Solomon article he is quoted saying “I am interested in evolution within my thinking. I am not interested in the evolution of my paint.” More directly, he said “My work is not about paint…[it’s] about paint at the service of something else.” Though in the article he doesn’t indicate what that “something else” is. He need not be anymore disingenuous than these statements are already.He is interested in the currency of painting. Painting is a rarefied, elitist, aristocratic, precinct of the arts. Paintings beyond all other art objects are readily traded for cash. If he genuinely had no interest in that part of it, he could articulate his concepts in other ways - namely photography, and furthermore, in a range of digital media formats available that could be in critical dialogue with the history of painting without actually being paintings.
Wiley’s interest in painting is paradoxically deeply superficial. He cares about the status that comes with being known as a painter. Dexterity is really quite cherished in the black artists’ community and among everyday people in the communities of the provinces. (There's good reason for that, which I won't go into now.) Draftsmanship ability implies serious commitment to the tradition, an attitude that I am almost sure came from his undergraduate studies, but I bet were less important in his graduate school studies at Yale. His paintings reveal the truth about his lack of interest in both the formal elements and general discourse in formal painting (i.e. the materiality of painting media as a subject.) On that level the work is also discouragingly thin and facile. I am curious how the intellect in/of his art stands up to say that of Theaster Gates, or Mike Cloud, Jacolby Satterwhite, Xaviera Simmons, Rashid Johnson, or Kalup Linzy. I mention these artists because they too are interested in much more than formalism. The content of their work writhes and contests the role of black life as seen through the eyes of an establishment. Cloud, for one, radically uses paint to argue with painting’s history. These are his peers. Each asserts a particular kind of African American life and perspective on an art world built on white supremacist ideals.
—Christopher Stackhouse writer, artist and teacher
Living in a culture in which people are fascinated and even obsessed with, and fearful of, aspects of blackness and the black body, requires us to utilize our art and our artistic practice in a way that liberates. Wiley’s work successfully and unapologetically uses art to provoke and explore his own version of beauty. Dawson’s sensationalist, attention–seeking review only reveals that we know racism exists in the art world, too. And so, black artists, curators, writers and art professionals must boldly move and provoke in such a way, inventing strategies that make space for reimagining racial, class and gender identity. Dawson’s attempts to psychoanalyze Wiley’s motives are from her own inhumane gaze, with the wrongful assertion that Wiley and his subjects are more body than mind.
In his book, Life against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History, philosopher Norman O. Brown insists that the purpose of psychoanalysis is “to return our souls to our bodies, to return ourselves to ourselves, and to overcome the human state of self–alienation.” Black artists are freer than ever to resist and transcend the confines of old, tight paradigms and boundaries of identity. We are creating new paradigms every day.
— fayemi shakur, writer, cultural strategist and consultant at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art
It is not difficult to comprehend why a diverse population of the art viewing public and individuals in the art world find tensions in Jessica Dawson’s recent Village Voice critique of Kehinde Wiley’s current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum entitled Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. Dawson has unknowingly expressed what some may see as unconscious negrophobia.
Although Dawson appears to acknowledge the aesthetic qualities of Wiley’s work, she appears to be unable to value the artist's work as a means of interrupting the classical western narrative. With the insertion of black subjects into this tradition and the structures of power, privilege and spectacle it portrays, Wiley reinvigorates the narrative, not unlike how the insertion of syncopation and improvisation into classical music created dynamic new forms of popular music.
Dawson’s critique questions whether featuring images of black men in epic majestic compositions is a form of “dangling a fantasy and false hope” in front of “young urban men” as a possible form of empowerment. Dawson’s argument assumes black men are lacking in the capacity to view themselves majestically while mocking the strength of the images and the artist’s process by calling it a false form of “art-historical affirmative action.”
Seemingly unaware of the complexities of race, sex and gender in Wiley’s work, Dawson focuses on presenting suggestive references about the informal manner in which Wiley meets his models. We all know about the passions of famous male artists, such as Picasso, for their muse du jour. In this respect, why single Wiley out for opprobrium?
Dawson reveals strong bias against the artist’s process by referring to Wiley as one who exhibits “predatory behavior” or someone who “targets young men of color” in the selection of his models. Dawson’s analysis labels Wiley a crude, if not perverse gay black man. She also objectifies and symbolically castrates Wiley’s models by referring to them as “firm piece[s] of African-American flesh.” The more sensual poses are said to be portraying the black man in “the manner of a classical Venus.”
Perhaps we need not Dawson's moral judgments and her offering of little else is why Dawson's review reads less like a exhibition review and more like a veiled assault on Wiley's character as a man and an artist.
—Michelle-Renee Perkins, artist and art educator