The Emperor’s New Clothes – Kehinde Wiley

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

In 2005 the Brooklyn Museum boldly acquired Willey’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, a dramatic reinvention (or was that theft?) of Jacques Louis David’s 1801 masterpiece. In place of the young, all-conquering Bonaparte, a figure closely resembling Wiley himself is fearlessly mounted on a fiery steed. He sports green and gold camouflage complete with a knotted kerchief, a branded tennis wristband and spotless work boots. A faux Versailles crimson and gold brocade replaces the Alpine mists, while David’s hard-edged naturalism is translated into immaculate photorealism. Wiley’s larger than life painting is at once impossible to forget and cartoonish, lacking the gravitas generally associated with the masters. Yet his work has reaped the highest critical accolades.

To be sure, Wiley knows his David, a painter who successfully survived three fiercely antagonistic régimes. The French master made his subjects look not just rich and powerful but heroic, an erstwhile red-carpet stylist for the French Monarchy, the Revolution and the Empire. In David’s hands, the scruffy upstart Bonaparte became Alexander the Great. He perfected the swagger portrait, a genre well known since Nero’s marble colossal in antiquity. Wiley too recasts his subjects – often handsome black men in hip hop attire – as the powerbrokers of the future. Impossible to the miss Wiley’s point: why are people of color never (or almost never) featured as protagonists in Western art and what would it look like if they were?

Now, roughly a decade later, Wiley’s jaw-dropping Imax style show, The New Republic, commands the Brooklyn Museum’s fifth floor wing with some paintings reaching almost 25 feet wide on par in scale with earlier exhibitions of Murakami, El Anatsui and Ai Weiwei. In this show, while not changing his essential premise or his electrically-charged palette, Wiley (or more precisely his global workshop) has broken the barriers of new media including bronze, stained glass, carved wooden frames and gold leaf. And, importantly, he has introduced women of color into his previously male-dominated repertoire.

At first, wandering through the immense rooms of elegantly placed works, given plenty of breathing space and radiant lighting, you are gripped by a feeling of awe tinged with elation. This man understands spectacle. There is a cinematographic appreciation of space and color as if you ascended the grand stairwell at Chatsworth House in England and were confronted with the baroque extravaganza of Louis LaGuerre (film setting of dozens of classy BBC style movies).

What Wiley has in common with Rubens, Tiepolo and David is a profound understanding of art management and marketing. “Let’s face it. I make really high-priced luxury goods for wealthy consumers, ” admits Wiley. In our global world, (and in bed) size matters. When does size become window-dressing, devoid of emotion and the type of multi-layered metaphors that great masters worked so painstakingly to achieve? Like Jeff Koons and Murakami, Wiley has developed worldwide studios with an army of assistants while maintaining a near death-grip on quality control. Like these master-of- the-universe artists, his work has a flawless impersonal character devoid of life’s everyday dirt, the grit of the soul. By portraying his subjects dry-cleaned, in artificial poses from the past, what does Wiley really bring to them? Are they today’s heroes or poseurs? What does it really say of their work, their position in society, their dignity? What, if anything, do we really know about Wiley’s subjects? When is appropriation a form of artistic tribute or a statement and when is it plagiarism?

In 2002, Wiley rescued a thrown-out mugshot notice on a police-station floor and transformed it into Mugshot-Study, 2006. The larger-than-life portrait presents a flawlessly beautiful young man with doe-like eyes that convey a form of vulnerability almost never associated with deadpan police photography. Only the faint numbers beneath the figure suggest the mug-shot connection. In view of the recent horrors committed against black men in the justice system—over one in three will be incarcerated according to Huffington Post—Mugshot-Study can be seen as a haunting political statement about the injustice of our prison system. To his credit, Wiley salvaged the image from the garbage, bringing awareness to both the young man and his ordeal, but what of the authorship?

Upon close examination, Wiley’s figure is identical in virtually every aspect to the color NYPD, mug shot—from the teenager’s expression, tilted head, skin tone, clothing and even the lighting. What is Wiley’s contribution? Conceptually, Andy Warhol had already enlarged mug shots with effaced booking numbers in 1964. Arguably from an intellectual property perspective, the image belongs lock stock and barrel to the NYPD. Luckily for Wiley, there is the New York Supreme Court case, Apfel v. s. Bache, that argues that if a party is willing to pay for an idea as original—thus demonstrating a belief in its value—the idea is in fact novel. So there, NYPD!

Wiley is unabashed about his sources. He even names his paintings after the originals that inspired them. As we know, all great art imitates earlier art and often brags about it. However, great masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, an early creator of the rearing equestrian portrait for the Duke of Milan (based on antique models and life drawings), studied a multiplicity of poses before coming up with the ultimate solution for his great bronze statue (ca. 1482-99 – never completed). He probably would not have seen it as a tribute to have a photo image of his horse manipulated on a computer screen mounted by a different rider. (Or, perhaps as a technology freak, the great inventor would have cheered.)

While you can compare the Netherlandish Portrait of Jacob Obrecht to Wiley’s 2013 counterpart, what is missing is intent. Fifteenth century portraits in the style of Memling were not just designed to commemorate the wealth and power of the sitter but in many cases to express their faith. It is this absent element—often conveyed in the Flemish masters by the interiority of the gaze, the humility of the hand placed in prayer, or accompanying images of holy figures and spouses—that testifies to deeply held beliefs. This meaning gives an added depth to the sheer brilliance of the oil painting with its layers of transparency. Sadly, this group of Wiley portraits with their artificial gestures and vacuous expressions barely pays lip service to the originals.

The same goes for Wiley’s exploration of new media. While his courage should be applauded, the results often appear as cheap imitations of sophisticated and beautiful crafts. For example, the tradition of stained glass is deeply embedded in architecture and the external light source, such as the sun, as a means to illuminate space and deliver a message of sanctity. Typically, the rose windows at Notre Dame were described in the literature as a metaphor for the Virgin Mary—holy light pierces her but she remains intact. The beauty of medieval stained glass is often derived from its uneven surface and the variation of colors enriched by stains and glass paint. In Wiley’s pieces, the flatness and uniformity of the modern glass reduces its power as does the unmodulated light in the phony chapel. The result is that the protagonists are not saints but saint wannabes.

One of the great challenges in Western painting has been to create a sense of depth. The reason argued by the great theorist Leon Battista Alberti is to make the absent present, in other words, to give a sense of life to the image. Virtually every great artist since Da Vinci has recognized the role of shadow not only to give volume to form but to allow the eye entry into the fictive painted space. Wiley’s undifferentiated lighting (background and foreground being equally in focus and of similar value) not only flattens the images but makes them impenetrable. Where does the image start and background end? Wiley’s invasion of the background motifs such as spiraling vines further complicates the reading of the image and what does it add? In the Portrait of John and George Soane, 2013, the medallion background takes on a decorative quality that subverts the impact of the two proudly defiant female figures giving them a billboard quality. Arguably, Wiley is intentionally conflating historical portraits with advertising and fashion with no interest in the power of illusionistic space but in so doing there is an emotional loss. And, since Aristotle, emotion has been seen as a major component of the artistic process.

Wiley’s paintings also address the queer gaze and male beauty. His large scale portraits of reclining figures recall Harold Stevenson’s Giant Adam, 1962, but with a focus on men of color. While the defined torso and powerful thighs in Wiley’s Sleep, 2008, convey the perfection of the male form nothing suggests the slackening of deep slumber. His recumbent men have a high-definition tauntness suggestive of pin-ups that undercuts their potency.

Some of Wiley’s strongest work brings together technical bravura, content and an emotional charge. His bronze Cameroon Study, 2010, depicting a contemporary African man with a Nike sneaker on his head alludes to a new form of commercial slavery imposed on emerging nations. The incongruity of the flawlessly cast classical bust with its expression of weary resignation and the sneaker delivers an effective jolt of awareness.

In this show that spans fourteen years, Wiley’s most vivid portraits combine a sense of spunky humor with innate elegance. The Portrait of Andries Stilte 2, 2006, does full justice to the pomp and drama of Cornelisz Verspronck’s Dutch grandee of 1639/40. The show’s curator, Eugenie Tsai, intelligently has not juxtaposed the actual masters with their historic counterparts. She has let them breathe in their own atmosphere, to be judged on their own merit.

In keeping with the exhibition’s thought-provoking nature, the visually stunning and creative catalogue Kehinde Wiley A New Republic offers multiple viewpoints. It presents the insights of a variety of fascinating contributors from many spheres of the arts, notably curators, critics, gallerists, poets, musicians, writers, and performance artists. Yet, it is also a masterpiece of political correctness, offering many received opinions, and few deep criticisms of Wiley’s art.

Regardless of whether you like them, Wiley’s creations are profoundly of our time: message-driven, in your face, captivating lush images, addictive quick bolts of information that make you want to click onto the next, and the next. Wiley is part of an important new group of highly visible artists of African descent such as Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Yinka Shonibare and Barkley Hendricks who have introduced people of color into major classical compositions. They are keenly mining old masters for their iconic authority inviting new audiences to investigate the brilliance of the originals and their malleability while also positing a revisionist art history. The verdict will lie with new viewers from diverse communities. Do these works make them feel empowered?

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