Wiley Buzz in Brooklyn

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” (Brooklyn Museum of Art, through May 24)

In a nutshell: there continues to be more than meets the eye in Wiley’s art, in retrospect and currently, although the eye is a big part of it.  

Roberta Smith hit a mark when she mentioned Norman Rockwell in her recent review of this decade-plus survey of Wiley’s oeuvre (NYT,  2/19/15). That’s post-millennial Rockwell, after decades of revisionist critical detours from the death knell of colorful figurative painting, particularly mimetic realism embraced by the hoi polloi. Yet, for those of the new camp (skewed pun intended), it was not the crafted imagery per se but the emotional connection that Rockwell’s work elicited in so many viewers that elevated it as “art” (not least Arthur Danto, e.g., “Age of Innocence,” The Nation, 7/14/02).  Add the above two components and you get Clement Greenberg’s description of kitsch, which, in some postmodern global version involving Photoshop, Wiley both hedges and ignores.

On full display is Wiley’s characteristic (by now) cacophony of color, patterns, shining skin, on-the-sleeve art appropriation and appealing, gay-ish ornamental flourish. Only the most authentic art motives could stand behind such highly composed picture planes and transparent content, the latter evoking, at turns, celebration and commemoration of the black male body, while deconstructing a white-washed, 1%-er artistic tradition that Wiley also claims deeply.

Like Rockwell, Wiley taps into broad social shifts that are forming “a new republic,” namely, the mainstreaming of African American hip-hop and diva sub-culture on an international scale. He virtually illustrates (Rockwell again) this sweep in his extensive, ongoing, “World Stage” painting series of urban subjects from major cities across several continents, which buzzes with simulated textile-inspired backdrops and b-boy sartorial bricolage (see especially “Africa” and “Israel”).

Two groupings of intimate, Renaissance-style portraits make perfect sense in Wiley’s unabashed art historical orbit, and present a fortuitous comparison with Titus Kaphur’s icon-like portraits of black men currently on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem (see post, 1/24/15).

So  Wiley’s a photorealist–i.e., he uses photographs as a starting point and through the process of producing a painting. It’s a genre related to implied narrative as well as vision, with a conceptual and technical lineage that has been popular and yielded substantial diversity in Western art from long before the event of modern photography.  Yes, he has employed assistants to reproduce the carefully plotted design swaths from the moment he could afford it, handling the central figures himself, a la Rubens, et al.  And?

Like his prolific painting out-put, Wiley’s experiments with sculptural mash-ups of black youths and classical portrait busts are not all masterpieces for the ages. He’s working out what/which ones very well may be. More often than not, he’s come up with (frankly) up-beat and refreshingly accessible stuff that crosses many borders and engages a substantive tension between soul and surface. What’s going on with official violence against black young men today adds a pressing, impressive, whole other level to his project.

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