The California-born, Yale-educated, Brooklyn-based painter Kehinde Wiley is an oddly polarizing artist, whose massive figurative paintings inspire both rage and adoration from his viewers. The retrospective Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, is an exhibition that elicits and reflects the biases of its viewers, and forces us to address what Kehinde describes as the “politics of perception.” Trapped inside ornate frames, his colorful depictions are inspired by the tropes of art history, and he provocatively replaces traditional sitters with the supple bodies of black or brown youths, men and women alike, from all around the globe: Brooklyn, Haiti, India, Africa, Brazil, Israel, Palestine. “I like to be uncomfortable in art,” Wiley said, and it is unsurprising that his viewers find themselves uncomfortable when looking at his work.
On Thursday night the Brooklyn Museum hosted the latest edition of its multimedia artist talks. To kick off the evening, DJ Spooky — a good friend of Wiley’s and an accomplished artist in his own right — layered and mixed songs inspired by the paintings in the exhibition while accompanied by a live violinist. Running through his resume of achievements almost as quickly as he looped tracks, he likened his work to Kehinde’s by saying, “art and music are always in dialogue. While Kehinde deals with figures, I work with data.” Deeply interested in “remix culture,” he questioned how appropriation is viewed in 21st century. Like the showman he is, DJ Spooky was the popcorn before the show.
Wiley, on the other hand, captivated the sold-out auditorium by showing how charismatic, humorous, intellectual, and articulate he is. Throughout the evening Wiley’s refusal to be stereotyped or pigeonholed, either as a gay man or as a certain type of artist, and his ability to avoid definition were both inspiring and slightly unnerving. Describing his work and the motivations behind it, Wiley warned of the danger of assuming that art tells us universal, cultural, or autobiographical truths. He pointed out the limitations we impose by expecting art to be a political statement, a social commentary, or a catalyst for change. “I have a cold atheist sensibility when it comes to art,” Kehinde told us. “Painting shouldn’t be preachy and portraits don’t tell us the truth about the people in them,” he said, and confessed that for him his paintings are all self-portraits. With a defiant smile Wiley told us, “I will have my cake and eat it too.” When asked about the positive social impact his work could have, he sent mummers through the crowd when he bluntly responded, “I hope my work doesn’t do harm, but I don’t necessarily design it to do good.”
As Wiley himself pointed out, the “art industrial complex” is an unfair and hierarchical place, a comment that heightened the already noticeable and unusually diverse museum crowd that night. His talk, lecture-like and reminiscent of an art history seminar, had the vibe of a sermon, motivational speech, political gathering, or protest: anything but a typical artist talk. It was a partisan crowd, and applause broke out at many different points throughout the night. Clapping erupted when Kehinde, in speaking about a series of paintings titled Down, said, “these portraits are a way of saying yes to the people who look like me.” Depicting young black men in what he called “involuntary repose,” they are sensual images vaguely reminiscent of the many lifeless black and brown bodies we see too often splashed throughout the news. Emphasizing that “scale matters,” these massive paintings (“Femme piquée par un serpent” measures almost 9×25 feet) are a “call to arms” for a population “fed up with a very real contemporaneity.”
Kehinde’s republic is a portrait of America, and a way to “look inside by looking outside.” Searching for American idioms and echoes abroad, Kehinde explained, “all the trips I’ve taken to other countries were just different ways of looking at America.” Every expat has experienced how far afield American influence has spread, but more interestingly Kehinde explores how impactful African American culture has been on a global scale. Working internationally with marginalized groups of young people is his way of diving into another culture’s similar experience. “It’s a rich opportunity to say, fuck it, I don’t know what I’m doing,” he candidly elaborated. Kehinde was adamant about remaining fearless of “getting it wrong” when portraying other cultures, and as reactions to his own work suggest, understanding begins with a great deal of misunderstanding. Aware of the responsibility he takes on as an artist representing others, Kehinde asks his viewers to be equally aware. “How do you look at these?” he rhetorically asked us of his paintings. “What lens do you see them through? Are they portraiture, social experiment, or performance art?” The answer, implied in the work itself, is all three.
In closing, Wiley left us with his take on the state of painting and the purpose of art. “Painting,” he remarked, “is very old and very played out. You’re making art with color, paste, and a hairy stick.” As laughter filled the auditorium, however, he added, “but, I’m a romantic and I’m embarrassed by it, so I’m a modern romantic. There is already enough snark and irony surrounding contemporary art.” Thinking back to the romantic formalism of the traditional painters he studied and deeply admires — Ingres, Titian, David, Hals — Wiley finds great pathos in art that stems from its inherent ability to outlive both maker and subject. Embracing chance in his work by approaching potential sitters in public places, Kehinde adds another layer of meaning to his historical appropriations. These are not depictions of the powerful, wealthy, or socially important, they are chance encounters with those too often prevented from fulfilling these roles. Wiley creates portraits that blend his people and their histories with exclusionary traditions, saying, “art can fold together twin desires.”
Stepping back and looking at the young faces gazing from his canvases, it is hard not to feel how tenuous the lives within them might be, and we are all too aware of how much tragedy could surround these lives. “How unlikely,” Kehinde said, “how improbable and how wasteful,” and it was hard to discern if he was talking about his art or their lives.
Multimedia Artist Talk: Kehinde Wiley and DJ Spooky took place at the Brooklyn Museum (Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium, 3rd Floor, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) on April 16, 7pm.