I recognized some of the faces in the paintings immediately: Hank Willis Thomas, Rashid Johnson and Sanford Biggers paired together, Derrick Adams, Kerry James Marshall, and Carrie Mae Weems. I’ve had meaningful conversations with some of these artists, seen the others from afar. They are all black, uniquely visible visual art celebrities. I had run across town to get to this gallery before it closed, and once there I felt like I had entered a cool, dark oasis that gave me water I didn’t know I was thirsty for.
Kehinde Wiley’s current exhibition, Trickster, at Sean Kelly Gallery made me feel much the same way as when I first saw Wiley’s work, years ago at the Brooklyn Museum: gratified and proud. Back then, upon viewing a painting of a young black man dressed in the typical urban uniform of name-brand athletic shoes, jeans, and an oversized hoodie, staring impassively past the viewer, while a magnificent horse with all the trappings of aristocratic regalia reared beneath him, I immediately understood the aim of Wiley’s work: it was and is to raise the status of everyday black people (many of his subjects are models he finds on the street) to that of the rarified personages worthy of historical, courtly portraits. In “Portrait of Hank Willis Thomas, La Romeria de San Isidro” (2017), Thomas wears a cutaway coat and ruffled sleeve cuffs, and has his hands are posed just so to signify a certain social rank; Johnson and Biggers act as diplomats in “Portrait of Rashid Johnson and Sanford Biggers, The Ambassadors” (2017). Wiley is affirming that there is indeed a pantheon of contemporary black visual artists and has begun to construct its register.
The portraits at Sean Kelly are nearly 10 feet tall and almost underlit, creating a hushed room. The moody palette lends gravitas, while the rich tones of skin and vegetation jump off the canvasses. (Wiley, the press release informs, has specifically modeled this body of work on Goya’s Black Paintings.) Still, as part of the long and storied history of court portraiture, Wiley’s paintings have some shortcomings. They feel stiff, as most of his work does to me, and don’t have the life and exultant presence typical of paintings by Diego Velázquez.
They also don’t evince Franz Hals’s insight into or judgment of his characters’ personalities, although in this series, Wiley captures the self-possession of Carrie Mae Weems really well — perhaps because a self-regard that can read to the naked eye as hauteur is the emotional theme of show. Nor does Wiley have that command of chiaroscuro that makes Rembrandt’s portraits intricately mesmerizing, from both across the room and a few inches away. In fact, the lighting in Wiley’s portrait of Wangechi Mutu seems a bit off to me, the highlight on the snake inconsistent with the rest of the painting.
More important, however, is the question of how my expectations of this style of portraiture make their peace with what the work sets out to accomplish. I might recalibrate those expectations if I see Wiley’s images as tools for conditioning my sight, in a way that can have profound ramifications for our cultural hierarchies. I can look at these paintings not simply as representational likenesses, but as forays into constructing a future in which the American art-going public will not find it strange that the subjects for such stately and ceremonious images are black people. This is the work’s aspiration. And by this token (though I initially thought my argument would draw the opposite conclusion), I see the need for the work to be more finely crafted, to be more closely attuned to the bodies who are its subjects, and thus more convincing in its quest.
The point that comes up again and again in the conversation surrounding Wiley’s work is how long he can keep doing the same thing. It’s been written enough times to be hackneyed that Wiley is a one-trick pony. That isn’t quite fair. His work is more of an ambition than a trick, and it’s a laudable one. He creates scenes that make it possible for me and people who look like me to feel that we have a place in this society, despite the missives we regularly receive that we are not valued or welcome. Some artists and writers only have one or two things to say. I don’t know if this will ultimately be the case for Wiley — I thought his sculptures in the Brooklyn Museum’s A New Republic made interesting gestures towards surrealism — but even if it is the case, it doesn’t matter. It is such a worthy politics to articulate, it should be shouted from the rooftops.
Kehinde Wiley: Trickster continues at Sean Kelly Gallery (475 Tenth Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan) through June 17.