Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at the Brooklyn Museum has been a highly anticipated show but apparently, not EVERYONE loves this artist. Kehinde’s work raise questions about race, gender, and the politics of representation by portraying contemporary African American men and women. The artist uses the conventions of traditional European portraiture and the show includes some sixty paintings and sculptures.
A lot of people love his work and with good reason. In a world where the performing arts are lauded 24/7, the visuals arts has few art superstars and Kehinde is one of them. Not since Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat has there been such clamoring at opening for a young artist. I’ve met him a few times through friends who collected his work early on. At Art Basel Miami Beach (up until recently) Kehinde would organize a fishing trip with a small group, and then the next night have a huge fish fry party for a few hundred of his real and extended family, friends and admirers.
But as I mentioned, not everyone loves Kehinde. The Village Voice published a controversial piece two weeks ago by Jessica Dawson (who, for the record, is 40-something and white) that STILL has everyone up in arms. To back up a bit, Wiley’s portraits are of real people. He invites individuals, often strangers he encounters on the street, to sit for portraits. In this somewhat-collborative 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 some control over the way they’re being portrayed. In the Voicearticle, titled provocatively, “What to Make of Kehinde Wiley’s Pervy Brooklyn Museum Retrospective?“, Dawson writes:
“… look closer at the 50-some objects — painting, sculpture, stained glass — and you’ll see predatory behavior dressed up as art-historical affirmative action. Wiley’s targets are young people of color who in these pictures are gussied up in the trappings of art history or Givenchy. Judging from Wiley’s market and institutional success — 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.”
Burn, right? Not that this one review should overshadow the show or the work itself. It does stop one cold to see that an art critic, thinks this way, and doesn’t edit themselves but “goes public” with the idea. Here’s another head-scratching excerpt:
“What Wiley and his subjects do behind the scenes may be none of our business, but his paintings kiss and tell. Saint Andrew grinds his crotch against a wooden cross, and in case we don’t quite get it, Wiley has painted free-floating spermatozoa across the canvas…
In what world is a Yale-minted artist who lures young men into his studio with the promise of power and glamour not predatory?”
Wow. Everyone sees works of art differently, no doubt, and a critic is certainly entitled to their opinions, but this reviewer seems to be getting at something else. Some subtext, I’m reading as more than vaguely homophobic. Wiley is black and gay, not that it matters, but the implication seems to be that he is using his power as an artist in the “wrong way”. Nevertheless, don’t let this review color YOUR view of the work. If you find yourself in Brooklyn between now and May 24th, go and see the work yourself. For more info go here.