Kehinde Wiley's Pomp and Black Circumstance

Hey, where did LL Cool J go?

I wish I liked Kehinde Wiley's paintings more than I do.

For about half a decade, Wiley has been painting young men posed in front of elaborate, patterned backgrounds. Initially, his subjects were African-Americans dressed in the uniforms of hip-hop—baggy jeans, hoodie sweatshirts, basketball jerseys, puffy down jackets—but arranged in compositions cribbed from haute 18th- and 19th-century European paintings.

He's also painted rappers like Big Daddy Kane, Biggie Smalls, Ice T, and LL Cool J posing imperially against richly patterned backgrounds. A more whimsical series, shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 2005, found hip-hoppers floating in the clouds like the cherubim in Renaissance ceiling frescoes.

Flashy eye-candy: Three Wise Men Greeting Entry Into Lagos, 2008
Courtesy the artist and Deitch Projects, New York

Flashy eye-candy: Three Wise Men Greeting Entry Into Lagos, 2008

In these paintings, the sitters are all gesture and attitude, pomp and bombast. Wiley's artistic stance is like that, too. On his website, he puts himself in a "long line of portraitists including Reynolds, Gainsborough, Titian, Ingres, among others." But Wiley's project is more than your ordinary bid for art-world domination: He's redirecting the currents of power. Instead of painting rich white people—the customary subjects of Western portraiture—he's painting young black men.

Recently, the 31-year-old artist, raised in Los Angeles, has taken his project global. In his series "The World Stage," he relocates to different countries and recruits young men off the streets to pose for him. The paintings at his current Studio Museum show follow the same format as the earlier canvases, except that instead of copying European paintings, the sitters mimic the poses of African public sculpture.

Young men dressed in Western clothes—jeans, shorts, soccer jerseys, button-down shirts—assume the positions of a Dogon Couple or a sculpture in the Place Soweto (National Assembly). You have to flip through the catalog to see photographs of the original sources. Here you discover that unlike the European paintings, which came from the same school of naturalistic, figurative art, the African sources range from tribal/pre-colonial to quasi-modern. Wiley has also played fast and loose with the compositions, clipping figures at the knees or turning a (Western) peace-sign gesture into a clenched-fist salute.

But despite the positive, empowering vibes coming from these paintings, my sense of discomfort remains. Or maybe I should clarify: my sense of discomfort with the art world's embrace of Wiley as "a history painter, one of the best we have" (to quote one review), or the descriptions of his work as "conceptually based critical works that are about representation rather than enactments of the process itself" (as one Foucault-heavy essay in the SMH catalog has it).

From the outside, the problem might seem merely that Wiley's genre is stale. He's coming late to the game of figurative art; what he's doing isn't particularly new or interesting, except that he's depicting African-Americans and Africans instead of white Europeans.

Wiley, though, isn't even in the first generation of black men to paint the figure. Kerry James Marshall's patchwork compositions are subversive confections of Eisenhower-era vignettes filled with tar-baby black figures and jarring texts. And then there's Barkley Hendricks—in fact, Wiley's paintings are a kind of juiced-up redux of Hendricks, with similar centralized figures and an emphasis on pattern. A recent painting by Hendricks of Nigerian Afrobeat star Fela Anikulapo Kuti showing him as a haloed saint has a yellow-wallpaper background that competes with the figure in the foreground, just as in Wiley's compositions.

And despite the surface swagger, Wiley is a much tamer painter than either of these two artists. Marshall's paintings carry titles like Black Power and By Any Means Necessary; Hendricks's subjects range from women with foot-tall Afros and T-shirts that read "Slave" and "Bitch" to Fela, a musician whose 1977 hit album Zombie was an attack on the Nigerian military. (Hendricks's Fela painting shows the musician grabbing his crotch—something that, despite the infamous lewdness of hip-hop, Wiley avoids.)

Wiley's version of neo–Black Power is complicated, since it centers on the corporatized fields of sports and entertainment, and captures Africans dressed in the cheap outfits (born out of sweat shops and globalized commerce) that mean a young man in Lagos wouldn't look out of place on 125th Street. Only one painting, Three Wise Men Greeting Entry Into Lagos, finds Wiley's subjects dressed in African attire—well, African tunics worn over jeans.

Wiley's work is also nearly devoid of women. He did a painting of the rappers Salt-N-Pepa and Spinderella in 2005, but the African canvases are like Elizabethan stage plays, with young men taking the place of women in paintings like Place Soweto and the even more clearly feminized Benin Mother and Child. Wiley's work may be "about representation" and power, but the women who exist in the public spaces of African cities are dismissed from "The World Stage."

There's a reason for this. Wiley himself states that the works are about a kind of coded homoeroticism. (In some of his paintings, vegetal patterns in the background wind around the figures in the foreground, replicating sperm.) But in a catalog interview, when curator Christine Kim tells Wiley that one of his American models "left the building" during a panel discussion in Columbus when gay sexuality was brought up, Wiley backtracks, stressing that, in the studio, he attempts to create a "neutral environment." You can't have it both ways, however, and this neutrality spills over into the paintings, which feel most of the time like a hedging of bets between multicultural political correctness and messier gay/black politics.

In many ways, Wiley is a symptom of the age—or maybe a victim of the era and his own success. He shows with Jeffrey Deitch, the impresario whose mission seems to be to fuse art with entertainment. Like much of Deitch's youth-culture-heavy stable, Wiley's flashy eye-candy painting is framed as edgy and subversive, but it sidesteps the heavyweight, head-on politics of artists like Glen Ligon. By comparison, Wiley is glossy, market-ready, and safe—unless the feel-good, one-world/one-love vibe is a ruse, a way of making a large population fall in love with paintings that they might, under clearer circumstances, reject.

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