What to Make of the Village Voice’s Offensive Kehinde Wiley Review?

Kehinde Wiley’s "Femme Piquée par un Serpent" (2008) at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by Garrett Ziegler/Flickr)
Kehinde Wiley’s “Femme Piquée par un Serpent” (2008) at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by Garrett Ziegler/Flickr)

If you’re looking for a very generous review of the Kehinde Wiley exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, read Roberta Smith. If you’re looking for one that’s startlingly homophobic and racist, read Jessica Dawson. The latter piece, in the Village Voice, is truly one of the most bizarre and poor excuses for art criticism I’ve read in a very long time.

Dawson doesn’t lay out her suspect thesis (if you can call it that) until the review’s third paragraph: Kehinde Wiley’s work, she writes, is “predatory behavior dressed up as art-historical affirmative action.” She goes on to call the subjects of his portraits “targets” and mention “the more lurid implications of the 38-year-old artist’s production.”

Surely calling someone predatory is a serious allegation, one that should be backed up by something like proof, or at the very least a rock solid argument. What is Dawson’s argument for Wiley’s “predatory behavior”?

Well, as you might have guessed, it’s not entirely clear. It seems to have to do with the fact that the male subjects in Wiley’s paintings are sexualized — an immediate red flag given the long, ugly history in this country of gay men being labeled sexual predators.

Here’s Dawson laying out her “logic”:

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.”

So, is Wiley predatory because he invites men whom he meets on the street into his studio — a perfectly legitimate and widespread artistic practice?

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).”

Is he predatory because he paints his subjects in a sexualized manner? Because he’s also a man, painting them in a sexualized manner? Because they might even have sex? How is any of this not homophobic?

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.

Beyond my doubts that Dawson has any real clue about what Wiley offers his subjects, I’d argue that she’s just plain wrong here. Does Wiley give his models a pass to Yale? No. But he does offer them the not-insignificant power of choosing how they will be represented, and he certainly gives them glamour.

Clearly, there is something about the sexualization of black men that offends or frightens Dawson. From the vagueness of her writing and the broadness of her generalizations, it’s hard to tell if it’s the “sexualization” or the “black men” part. Her writing about the central premise of Wiley’s work — to insert ordinary black people into paintings that mimic the grandeur of historical, and historically white, portraits — is just as problematic and offensive as the aspersions she casts on his process. Consider:

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?

It’s almost hard to know where to start unpacking a passage so brimming with barely veiled racism! First, we have the reduction of African Americans to their sexualized bodies (“a firm piece of African-American flesh”). Second, the assumption that all the subjects come “from the ghetto,” because, you know, they wear sneakers and Wiley found them on the street. Third, the connotation that all those “newspaper headlines” are being so dramatic by insisting that this country has a major problem with mass incarceration. And then there’s the kicker: the assertion that it is a “fantasy and false hope” to suggest that young black men should aspire to, let alone might ever achieve, positions of power. Wow.

I mean, look, I hardly think Kehinde Wiley is beyond reproach. I’ve written critically about him before, and others have written critically about this show. But there’s a difference between breaking down what works or doesn’t about his art and arguing that he’s a “predator” based on your own prejudiced reactions to that art.

That Dawson not only wrote this, but that Village Voice editors saw fit to publish it, makes it an urgent example of why journalism needs to diversify — badly and soon.

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