Tag Archives: Kehinde Wiley

“Radical Love” at the Ford Foundation”

320 East 43rd Street, through August 17, 2019

If you’ve never been to the landmark 1960s building of the Ford Foundation for Social Justice, which has had an extensive public plaza-like space open to the public from the beginning, the new gallery and its programming (established 2018 in a building overhaul; this is the second exhibition) is even more reason to get going. Exhibitions focuses loosely issues and circumstances related to the Foundation’s mission, whether and both who the artists are. Here the thematic title reins in global artists dealing more and less with injustice, personal obstacles, wrapped up with self-love, communal celebration, and most often post-colonial, Diaspora, and transnational identities and social issues.

An innovative feature of the building is its tiered indoor tropical garden (above), the site of a sound piece (part of the show) by Umani Uzuri, which incorporates the spiritual, “Wade on the Water” to invoke a “hush arbor,” or hiding place for escaped slaves in the antebellum South.  On the second floor in the gallery proper a large entrance wall accommodates a kind of memorial to the protestors arrested in the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, in which their individual photos have been developed on transparent silk and superimposed onto painted portraits for a ghostly stereoscopic effect.  A trio of figurative textile sculptures from the late 1970s by the still prolific Faith Ringgold (b. 1930) are as political as they are personal in their feminist form and subjects.  Most other works share some sort of visual dazzle through a riot of color, patterning, and textures.

A tin-foil-glittery, kitsch-Baroque, paper-mache rat-infested, gay-urban altarpiece by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, who started with this sort of thing c. 40 years ago, is impressive for its obsessive dedication to scrappy, inventive craft.  His semiotic linking of superficial sparkle with queerness as well as spirituality is seen elsewhere here; while others use glittery effects to other associative ends.  Ebony Patterson’s hanging, sequin-dotted patchwork tapestry, in which images of body parts peak through in sections, includes gold-painted conch shells and coins strewn below to reinforce the Caribbean context of her dreamy-nightmare aesthetic. Rashaad Newsome’s kaleidoscope-like photo-collages of glam-bling adornments on impossible bodies deals partly in drag ball fantasy, picked up in Athi-Patra Ruga’s staged portrait photos.  Weedy growths sprouting from high on several walls are tangled with bits of shiny detritus in an installation by Lina Puerta.   Raul de Nieves’s opulently costumed mannequins representing two aspects of his mother recall Egungun masks (which completely cover dancers in the Nigerian masquerade traditions) and Nick Cave’s “soundsuits.”  A gold-ornamented painted female portrait by Lina Iris Viktor includes a backdrop map melding Africa with sites of its Diaspora. An especially moving assemblage sculpture by Vanessa German depicts a “white-face” Madonna / nkisi (power figure in traditional groups of the Congos) cradling a black baby doll, with silver-beaded strands of tears. Probably the most arresting and eye-opening work for most viewers will be Sue Austin’s video of her underwater experience in a wheelchair specially equipped for the event. More than a half-dozen other works included are similarly engaging; and a bonus on my visit were publicly accessible works beyond the exhibit by Kehinde Wiley and Hank Willis Thomas (look down the hallways to and from the elevators).

Raul de Nieves, “Fina Beauty” and “Fina Nurture” (both 2019); at the Ford Foundation)
Foreground: Vanessa German, “Notes on the absence of Sacredness: How Little Black Girls Die” (2018); background: Lina Iris Viktor, “Eleventh” (2018); at the Ford Foundation.

Toyin Ojih Odutola: Realist Portraits in a Faux-Collection

Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined

Whitney Museum of American Art, through Feb. 6, 2018

A large-scale pastel drawing titled, Surveying the Family Seat (2017) which plants a strong, contemporary male figure in a high-ground position peering out over an extensive landscape, introduces and encapsulates the solemn, hermetic privilege that pervades this series of recent pastel and charcoal portraits by Toyin Ojih Odutola (b. 1985).  Here and throughout, verdant, serpentine terrain, rhythmically and colorfully delineated, melds into fabric folds and textile patterns, with emphasis on sartorial details and highlighted patches of exposed skin.  The latter is carried through from the artist’s earlier work, first in ballpoint pen and then other media, in which dense black-on-black face and body images were inflected with peaks of “shine” (following Krista Thompson, Shine: The Visual Economy of Light . . ., 2015) that could read as both emanating and reflective, and also allude to  scarification and masking.  Here the effect is subdued and woven into overall naturalistic representation and implied narrative.

A decorative wall text imitating a book-plate frontispiece introduces a credible but fictional backstory grounding the disjointed visual chronicle of the multi-tiered, upper-crust Nigerian clan featured in the ensuing display.  Linked through marriages and the business of maintaining wealth and status, the current heritors of a lineage portrait collection are a gay couple depicted in a work titled, Newlyweds on Holiday (2016)– artistic cousins to Kehinde Wiley’s intricately patterned pairs.  Kerry James Marshall’s domestic insights and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s imaginary portrait sitters are also recalled, forthrightly.

Ojih Odutola is of a millennial generation of artists of African descent working within and outside of Africa who are stretching diasporaic and transnational vision in multi-directions for art content.  Between them, new routes of artistic exchange—literal and metaphorical—have proliferated.  Beyond Yiadom-Boakye, a number of woman among them have pursued figurative modes with specific emphasis on simulated fabric and/or fashion flair including Amy Sherald, Jordan Casteel, and Njideke Akunliyi Crosby, the latter a compatriot (Nigerian) émigré and perhaps closest painterly peer of Ojih Odutola.  The works of these woman share a photo-like directness, incorporating typically shallow foregrounds that convey the desire to be boldy apprehended.

Among the distinctions of Ojih Odutola’s realism in this series is an enigmatic sensibility percolating beneath the surface linear fluidity of her pastel technique. Mostly, the depicted characters hold gazes that slyly confront or obviously deny viewers-voyeurs.  Gender ambiguity is a recurring theme, mashed up with postmodern global styling and localizing trends.  Ojih Odutola wrangles the controlled pose and inner ennui of her faux-subjects in the manner of John Singer Sargent—updated with the self-possessed polish and countour definition of Barkley Hendricks.  Finally, tilting picture planes bring japonisme into Ojih Odutola’s orbit of inspirations, and white-on-white, veil-like layerings add a breezy elegance across several works–formal effects coaxed effectively out her earlier close-cropped monochromatic variations.

Lorraine O’Grady’s Resonant ‘Happening’ Framed at SMH

Lorraine O’Grady, “Art Is . . . ,” Studio Museum in Harlem, extended through March 6, 2016.

Good art accrues meanings through time, dragging along those seminal semiotics reflecting the circumstances in which it was created and the humanity of the artist behind it.

That’s what we see in SMH’s current exhibition version of a happening (action; relational performance) conceived and enacted by artist-activist-intellectual-polymath-octogenarian, Lorraine O’Grady, with assistants, in 1983.  On the cooperatively bright day of the annual African American Parade in Harlem, O’Grady and her team commanded a float of gilded, empty picture frames, and (physically) “framed” anonymous bystanders along the route–the photographic documentation of which is on view.  The straightforward presentation and snap-snot quality of the images conveys an aesthetic for the work (qua work of art)  that wrangles organization, excitement, and intellectual energy.

Literally moving whatever “art is . . .” out of the mainstream (downtown; white) art world and its partisan definitions (at that particular moment), O’Grady delivered a nuanced meta-art proposition as well as myriad messages and themes of invisibility and exclusion, and the social implications of interactive art, in the event of the piece and its aftermath, which lives on (not only here).    Nari Ward, in his 2014 project, “Sugar Hill Smiles,” in which he “canned” reflected smiles of passers-by (in the Harlem neighborhood, Sugar Hill) to create conceptually individualized multiples, is heir (see post). So are Kehinde Wiley‘s Baroque-ish-framed portraits of anonymous African American youths.

Nari Ward; 2014; see post.
Nari Ward; 2014 (see post).

The same O’Grady presentation was recently installed at P.S. 1 in the context of an international exhibition dealing with class and race politics and oppression (“Zero Tolerance“); it can withstand and well deserves the increasing exposure. Even stronger resonances are forthcoming at the history and heart of the piece, here on 125th St.

Snapshot: Spring Shows at SMH

At the Studio Museum in Harlem, through June 28:

Harlem Postcards

Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones

Salon Style


In Profile

The spring edition of Harlem Postcards is, as usual, a lively and intriguing welcome into the galleries (“Harlem Postcards”).  Love the “golden grapes” by Awol Erizko, inspired by an Egyptian kitsch image (T-shirt), and Elaine Reichek’s embroidered interpretation of a beaux-arts architectural detail (“Harlem Arcadia”).

The featured show, TDH (Amer., b. 1974): Sprawling, subversive, naughty, adolescent, densely-doodled cartoons; as per the title, the insides and outsides of human anatomy, real and imagined, rubbery, R. Crumb-“screwy,” Kerry-James-Marshall comics c. 2000, prehistoric and futurist, interspersed with hand-scripted odd-ball texts to match.  Keith Haring-like autonomy in the continuous, fluid contour drawing and mixed male messages.  Not particularly my sensibility; but surely, interesting critical investigations will be derived from this first (mid-career) retrospective for a driven, idiosyncratic draftsman.  If you do get caught up, you’ll be spending a good chunk of time unraveling it all.

More me (metaphorically; isn’t that the bottom line?) was the upstairs group show, “Salon Style.” (I once wrote a review, “Make-Up and Art” — see “Publications” page, 2012).  On the one hand, hair and (more recently in the grand scheme) nails, have become overdetermined tropes of black womanhood (globally), in specific terms of representation; on the other, related representations have been enormously influential, socially, politically and aesthetically, in the art world and beyond, since the early postwar years; and continue to be explored energetically. (I didn’t mention, in my post on the BMA Kehinde Wiley show, 2/23/15, the monument to ancestral-goddess hair, Bound, 2014).  Here, I was happy to see one of Chris Ofili’s idealized 70s-style fantasy watercolor portraits juxtaposed with one of Lorna Simpson’s similar photo-collage image-concepts (I noticed a kinship while both had simultaneous shows in NYC last year; see post, 11/3/14); as well as a demure Hank Willis Thomas manipulated “re-photograph”–ode to the perfect (female) Afro, and a small-scale Chakaia Booker (just because Booker’s formal “rubber-tire” inventiveness is always amazing).  But the star of this show is surely Pamela Council, with her “blaxidermy” (the artist’s term) art of artificial nails, from a series homage to the late, great Olympic runner Flo-Jo (Florence Griffith Joyner).

Being partial to both bricolage and Minimalist aesthetics, I was engaged by the bookish installation downstairs, Unbound (2015), in which artist Samuel Levi Jones has lined the gallery walls with tattered book spines, bindings, and covers, faded to beige and rust tones and arranged grid-like, to suggest both the immobility of entrenched, institutionalized epistemes and the malleability of collected knowledge vis-a-vis new contexts.

Highlights from two smaller installations of works from the permanent collection:

Upstairs in “Concealed” I would note: an early Willie Cole “domestic iron” piece, in which iron-burnt impressions suggest spear-shaped, worn masks (early 1990s); a realist charcoal portrait of a contemporary figure turned hybrid under a under a heavy, Baga-type mask by Robert Pruitt; and a manipulated photo-portrait by Paul Anthony Smith, in which a Kuba mask is superimposed on the sitter and “flecked” (actually pricked over with a sharp implement) to appear as shining.

Downstairs, “In Profile”: a small Barkley Hendricks “icon” of a shaded-glasses-70s dude that resonates right now with the similar recent, gold-backed portraiture of Titus Kaphur (see post 12/8/14) and Wiley (at BMA); also, a ceramic rosebud-blooming head by Simone Leigh, and a rough-hewn hair-shop-sign assemblage by Alison Saar, both of which would have looked great upstairs in “Salon.”


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.