Storm Clouds Over The Republic

Rancor and reconsiderations accompany the Kehinde Wiley show from Brooklyn to Seattle to Richmond

The New Republic, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, June 11 through September 5, 2016

Kehinde Wiley, Willem van Heythuysen, 2006. Oil and enamel on canvas, 96 x 72” Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Travis Fullerton, VMFAThe rancor accompanying this traveling show, organized by the Brooklyn Museum where it opened last year, is about the the motives of the artist’s “street casting” and, more generally, about his repetitive style.


Kehinde Wiley, Morpheus, 2008, oil on canvas. Collection of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, 21c Museum Hotels. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA; Sean Kelly, New York; Galeries Daniel Templon, Paris; and Stephen Friedman Gallery, LondonKehinde Wiley — sexual predator targeting gullible young men. His portraits of them lying across beds with their underpants showing is a visual clue to his motives.

Kehinde Wiley — gifted, prolific painter drawing on the time-honored artistic tradition of voyerism.  

These were two of the three sides articulated in the rankled controversy which IRAAA+ covered in a mini forum, All is Fair in Love and Art.  

A third side, introduced by arts writer Christopher Stackhouse in the IRAAA+ forum, was:  

Kehinde Wiley — superficial, sugar-pill coater. 

Kehinde Wiley, Support the Rural Population and Serve 500 Million Peasants, 2007. Oil and enamel on canvas,72 x 60” 21C Museum, Louisville, KY.© Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Max Yawney, courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CAAnd a fourth side was expressed in other publications:

Kehinde Wiley — a “one trick pony” artist who repeatedly reproduces the same motifs and is exhausting them.  (That article is here.)

Another critic who also lambasted the formulaic aspect of Wiley’s work and who still says “stop lionizing” Wiley, began to reconsider some aspects of his hard line when he saw the show in Seattle.

With regard to the “predator” accusation, Kehinde Wiley,  himself, readily acknowledged the aspects of  “seduction” and “sexual desire” of his artistic practice during an telephone interview with Toni Wynn. Wynn reported on A New Republic at the VMFA in a Richmond Free Press article.  

Wiley’s honesty, in the wake of blistering criticism, is admirable, but what’s he got to hide?  Artists and artist’s models have always had carnal knowlege, if not relations.  

Kehinde Wiley at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, June 2016. Photo: VMFA And the rancor goes both ways. Wiley was rankled during the interview with Wynn when she said she didn’t see herself, “an older black woman,” reflected in his work.   “It’s about me,” he retorted. “It’s about me looking, me seeing the world through sexual desire, political interest, desire to decode certain questions for myself. It’s about a black American going through the streets of black America and walking through the world. It’s not about you, it’s about me.” 

When Toni Wynn discussed her plan to interview Kehinde Wiley with me, I noted how the burden of socially responsible representation imposed on African African artists can limit their innovation and hold them back.  Wiley agrees.

“So much is expected of our artists,” he told Wynn.  “There’s a difference between what black American artists are expected to do as opposed to what heterosexual white American artists are expected to do.”

That’s true — but only if stated with this added qualification in bold): “There is  a difference between what African American artists are expected by some other African Americans to do, as opposed to what heterosexual white American artists are expected to do.”  While some black folks (understandably) would like for black artists to reflect social concerns in their work, the white art establishment eagerly vaunts the path-breaking, renegade black artist without a cause.  They're always on the look out for something different, contrary and new.

Wiley's Artificial Women

Kehinde Wiley, Shantavia Beale II, 2012. Oil on canvas, 60 x 48” Collection of Ana and Lenny Gravier. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Jason Wyche, courtesy of Sean Kelly, NYAnd then there are the egregiously extravagant Kehinde Wiley’s women. When Wiley introduced his female subjects in the 2012 Economy of Grace exhibition, I was struck by the disparities between how he portrayed his female and male subjects.  

The male subjects exude total, authentic hip hood style — fades, head rags, caps worn sideways, hoodies, chains, baggy t-shirts, boxer drawers peeking out of low-hanging pants, Timbs and Air Jordans.   Wiley integrates his male subjects' own street style with the grandeur of European Rococo painting.

But the Wiley women in Economy of Grace exude the binary opposite of street style. They wear opulent Givenchy gowns and other finery and elaborate fake hairstyles. The lavishly coiffed Shantavia Beale 11 (shown on the left) is the main publicity image for the traveling exhibition.

Kehinde Wiley, Mrs. Waldorf Astor, 2012, Sean Kelly Gallery, New YorkSex-race-and class biases function to devalue the appearance of average black women. So is that why Wiley portrayed his black female subjects’ personal appearance as ostentatiously grand — and not just their backdrops in that way?  Haute couture and artifice for the women versus down and "for real" portrayals of the guys in their bandannas and baggies — what's with that?  

Wiley seemed to be short-changing the women on authenticity.  Or was he visually commenting on the results of a very real condition of gender disparity?  

Kehinde Wiley, The Two Sisters, 2012. Oil on linen, 96 x 72” Collection of Pamela K. and William A. Royall, Jr. Courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Jason Wyche, courtesy of Sean KellyWhile the boyz in the hood have lots of successful, high-profile athletes and entertainers who look and dress like them, young black women have few street-style models magnified, large in the culture.  Black female pop icons such as Beyonce and Rihanna are styled as “queens” — a look they sometimes flip, but always return to — while black male pop celebs can look “street” for days.

On these points about gender disparity, Wiley had a compelling explanation for Toni Wynn. She did not include this explanation in her article but shared it in her notes to me.

“Hair culture is underrated,” Wiley explained.  “Over-the-top hair sculpture in shows in places like Georgia — they're almost as Rococo as the most fabulous imagination.”  (The “Georgia” reference is to the Bronner Brothers annual hair show extravaganza in Atlanta.)   

Wiley continued: “Fuse that (over-the-top coiffure) very queer black American female-slash-African American legacy and have it fused into repeating fetishes (which leads to being) bound — bound by that history and speaks to a certain freedom and creativity and circularity of being free and bound all at once.”

Okay, so with regard to their appearance, black women are caught up in being both creatively free and bound to a conventional, white-oriented feminine aesthetic? If that's what Wiley means, it’s a very insightful point. The “queer” reference in his explanation is harder to unpack.  Queer black women tend not to be bound by convention and/or over-the-top opulence in developing their hair styles and personas.  Or maybe Wiley meant “queer” as “odd,” not as “queer” sexual orientation?

Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005. Oil on canvas, 108 x 108” Collection of Suzi and Andrew B. Cohen © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn MuseumAnyway. The ideas, lives and works of highly successful people invite lots of carping.  Some detractors even question Wiley’s use of assistants  to create the detailed backgrounds for his human subjects (which he paints), although that’s a standard practice of white master artists who execute large, detailed canvases.  But Wiley assembly-line type production of works cuts both ways.  

On one hand, his output is mind-bogglingly prolific. An online image search for Kehinde Wiley yields pages and pages and pages and many more pages of photos of his paintings. And not all of his work has been shot and uploaded to the Web so there's even more. How can Wiley produce so much, even with assistants painting the backgrounds?

On the other hand, however, Wiley's prodigious work is becoming pedestrian, run-of-the-mill.  

"Have you heard a musical composition in which every note is perfect, yet it doesn't move you?"  That's how one colleague felt when viewing some Wiley's work in a museum but he admits he's not seen a representative swath of it. 

Bottom line: "brilliantly plodding" is not an oxymoron when applied to Wiley's oeurve.

Most observers — no matter how fine the nits they have to pick with this artist, will agree that his painting technique is outstanding. The patience and painstaking effort required for rendering his central subjects is like a form of rigorous meditation.   

As art gets more experimental, conceptual, electronic and amorphous, we continue to wonder, “Is painting dead?”  The question was first raised in the 1850s with the emergence of photography, resurfaced in the 1970s with the emergence of conceptual art, and again in the 1980s and ‘90s as part of the “post modern” discourse in visual cultural criticism.  When he shot to fame shortly after completing his MFA at Yale in 2001 and a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Kehinde Wiley demonstrated that representational painting could make a fresh statement and a big splash in contemporary art.

Kehinde Wiley, Arms of Nicolas Ruterius, Bishop of Arras, 2014. Stained glass, 54 x 361⁄2.” Courtesy of Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris © Kehinde WileyThe New Republic exhibition covers more recent developments in Wiley’s work including bronze busts, “paintings” in stained glass, and works from his "World Stage" series.  For "World Stage," Wiley traveled in Asia, Israel, Africa and the Caribbean and found young people of color to pose for his visual sagas.  

Kehinde Wiley, Leviathan Zodiac, 2011. Oil and gold enamel on canvas, 953⁄4 x 713⁄4” Collection of Blake Byrne. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer, courtesy of Roberts & TiltonHe's also stretching out in that series by developing backgrounds for his paintings that — while still ornamental — are drawn not from traditional European decorative arts, but from the designs and patterns of the subjects’ own cultures and geographies. The grandiosity of Wiley’s female subjects vanished in the "World Stage" series — the dress and hair of his African and African Diaspora women subjects are based on their real-life personas.

Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) still has a lot of painting to do.  Because he’s so knowledgable about art history and criticism, so technically skilled, and so observant with street savvy to spare, he should continue to be able to find ways to rescue his magnificent art from his platitudinous formulas and refresh it.

Juliette Harris


Post Scripts

For The New Republic installation at the VMFA, curator Sarah Eckhardt added two works. From the VMFA's own collection, she presents Willem van Heythuysen (top left, above) at the start of the show. And she borrowed Wiley’s The Two Sisters (also shown above) from local collectors Pamela K. and William A. Royall for the show.

IRAAA+ coverage of Kehinde Wiley's World Stage series is here.

Also at the VMFA

Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott, July 23, 2016 – October 30, 2016

Gordon Parks, Untitled, Fort Scott, Kansas, 1950. Courtesy of and © The Gordon Parks FoundationGordon Parks' The Learning Tree novel, based on the famed photographer's experience of growing up in Fort Scott, Kansas, was published in 1963.  The father of Parks’ alter ego protagonist "had mixed feelings about this place,” Parks wrote. “Like all other Kansas towns, Cherokee Flats (i.e. Fort Scott) wallowed in the social complexities of a borderline state. Here, for the black man, freedom loosed one hand while custom restrained the other."  

Parks also had surveyed African American life in Fort Scott in 1950, for a photo essay he planned to call “Back to Fort Scott.”  These images now form the basis of an exhibit of the same name at the VMFA.