If you think you recognize one of the paintings from the Fox evening soap Empire on the walls of the Brooklyn Museum’s Kehinde Wiley retrospective, you’re only half wrong.
By now the Wiley formula is so familiar — and so legible on TV — that it operates as a shorthand for black empowerment: His well-known portraits of young men from the projects dropped into Old Masterish settings are the black figurative equivalent of Thomas Kinkade. On the Fox show, music mogul Lucious Lyon has at least two Wileys in his New York City pad, and a monster-size canvas of a Timberland-shod swashbuckler (titled Officer of the Hussars and owned in real life by
the Detroit Institute of Art) presides over the living room of rapper Hakeem Lyon,
Lucious’s son. In the current show on view at the Brooklyn Museum, dozens
of near-identical canvases repeat Wiley’s brand of African-American uplift.
But look closer at the 50-some objects — painting, sculpture, stained glass — in “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic,” 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.
Wiley’s Passing/Posing and Rumors
of War series consist of massively scaled, color-saturated paintings that feature handsome young black men — plucked from the dicier blocks of Harlem and Bed-Stuy (back when row houses didn’t command seven digits) — astride a horse or leaning jauntily on a cane, like Napoleon or a nobleman. Instead of the rocky outcroppings and interiors that background the originals from which he borrows, Wiley deploys textile patterns that flatten time and obliterate place. Down, his series of billboard-size canvases of lounging odalisques, finds the artist’s male models with their underwear pulled down to reveal a few inches of abdomen and their lips moist and open in the manner of a classical Venus.
Wiley renders his models’ pecs, thighs, and cheekbones in warm caramels. Most wear their street clothes, so it’s Timberlands and Nikes digging into the stirrups and Hanes underwear riding low. The biceps of young Morpheus — not the Laurence Fishburne character from The Matrix but a riff on eighteenth-century French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon’s portrayal of the mythical god
of dreams — evince an almost photo-real perfection. Wiley, who says he paints the central figures himself (the painstaking labor of the patterned backgrounds he outsources to assistants in a global network of studios), layers on thin washes
of oil to luminous effect.
It’s easy to see why these images have become that shorthand. On their surface, the figures are commanding. Wiley’s juxtapositions of high and low, street and
academe, are subversive but not too much so. Their placement in look-at-me gilded frames gives them gravitas. If we wanted, we could stop right here, give two thumbs up to learned street cred, and praise Wiley for his business acumen. “I make really high-priced luxury goods for wealthy consumers,” the painter told the Art Newspaper in 2008.
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?
And then there is Wiley’s casting-couch method. 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. “When I’m approaching these guys, there’s a presupposed engagement,” Wiley said in the 2008 Art Newspaper interview. “I don’t ask people what their sexualities are, but there’s a sense in which male beauty is being negotiated.”
Once in the studio, Wiley presents
his model with art-history books and asks him to choose which painting he’d like to be in. Straining to legitimize this method, Brooklyn Museum curator Eugenie Tsai lauds the artist in the exhibition catalog for “the subject’s active participation” in
a “collaborative encounter…co-produced by the subject and the artist.”
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. The same goes for the bear of a fellow in Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, which could be subtitled “(Through a Light Ejaculate Mist).” And if the painted
tadpoles aren’t sufficiently suggestive, several of the gilded frames contain sperm reliefs of their own. (Talk about painting outside the lines.)
In what world is a Yale-minted artist who lures young men into his studio
with the promise of power and glamour not predatory? These aren’t portraits. They’re types — to the point where
the majority of his titles reflect only the identity of the original sitter; his models remain anonymous.
Like many perpetrators, Wiley has moments of grace. Some are conjured by Tsai, who whips a fifteen-year career of deadening sameness into something vaguely dynamic by showing variously sized works and media. The most beautiful and humane images, presented in the exhibition’s final room, are Wiley’s 2013 reinterpretations of fifteenth-century Flemish painter Hans Memling’s portraits of wealthy merchants. The figures in a trio
of small panels embedded into altar-like wood surrounds possess a humanity that goes missing in the flash of Wiley’s mural-size works. After Memling’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Hat is ethereal, yet so solid that he makes a case for Wiley’s skills.
Perhaps tellingly, each painting in this
series includes the model’s name.
Do instances such as this one validate
the rest of Wiley’s output or render his methods less perverse? We’ll never know. Having discovered the art world’s weakness, Wiley has painted himself as untouchable.