Arriving at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, I walked in behind a couple hundred hootin’ and hollerin’ high school students, let loose on the town. Their minders barked out ear-splitting yet ineffectual commands for order, and I thought, well, there goes the chance for any bucolic art reveries. But remembering I was there to see Kehinde Wiley‘s Focus exhibition, I lagged behind to play fly on the wall, hoping to gauge their take on it all.
I stood amidst a gaggle of teen girls debating which young gangsta in Wiley’s The Chancellor Seguier on Horseback was the cutest. As in the other two large pieces in this selection, it takes as its model an older European portrait masterwork, in this case the grand and gaudy staged procession of an aristocratic elite. In Wiley’s version a defiant, do-ragged, football-jerseyed tough takes the chancellor’s place. The girls’ conversation didn’t encompass the historical, cultural, or artistic subtleties, focusing instead on what rightfully matters to them at this point in their lives, on a museum field trip, on a lovely spring day – utter hotness. I listened in on some male students engaged solely in an analysis and critique of the depicted brands and styles being sported – some of them, unsurprisingly, unknown to clueless old me.
The real value of Wiley’s art might exactly be its appeal to a younger audience weened on hip-hop culture. They might not know a Flavin from a Kiefer and would probably be hard pressed to care; but odds are they can quickly tell a Neptunes beat from an N.E.R.D track. Call Wiley’s paintings good gateway art – get ’em hooked young, by any means necessary. But the distinction for me is that, while inarguably clever, the real goods aren’t in the actual experience of Wiley’s work itself. It’s literally just kind of…kids’ stuff.
The functioning narrative is about elevation, and not just of urban fashion into the faux-immortality of art. At the most obvious level, these paintings act essentially as skillful exercises in design and packaging for a simple if profound message; one that, for all the ornate filigree of the façade, is maybe as direct as "Black is Beautiful" – and of innate worth. That’s a sentiment no less necessary now than ever, and one we still struggle for more and better reminders of (hopefully by next year, we’ll have one fixed in the White House).
Intentional or not, there was an interesting contrast with another African-American artist who still had his retrospective installed upstairs. Unlike the more explicitly physical and metaphysically oblique apparatus of Martin Puryear‘s sculptures, the mechanism of Wiley’s paintings is grand theatrical pastiche, if not outright propaganda. From fashionable swirling rococo motifs spun candy-like around his figures, to the tasteful, couture window display color combinations, in true hip-hop spirit, they borrow a dozen knowingly hyper-trendy visual tropes and deftly cobble them together for a plastic-y staged effect. This is certainly in keeping with at least one of the motivations of the historical precedents being emulated and manipulated. Once rich and powerful white guys, who paid to have themselves depicted so as to perpetuate a cycle of riches and power, are transformed by Wiley into only recently enfranchised young men of color; their skin in hues that still makes them statistically more likely than many others in the US to be poor, and (at rates that should have us all in the streets marching in protest) imprisoned.
Months ago I came across that interactive website, part of a Harvard study made famous by Oprah. Through an ingeniously unerring test, it has demonstrated that most people, even a high percentage of those of African descent, show a marked preference for "white" faces over "black" ones. Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell was disturbed to find that, though of mixed race himself, he too showed this typical bias, skewing "white" again and again. He immediately began to try to shift this unwelcome predilection, but found that no amount of positive thinking or willful choice could change the test’s outcome. What finally did was simply looking at pictures of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and other like moral and social leaders of color immediately before taking the test. He was then finally able to score that elusive balance. There’s no fooling the subconscious, and a picture proves itself to indeed be worth a thousand words.
There’s something of this kind of operation at work in Wiley’s paintings. Not only an ostensible conversion of dead white rich guys into young vital black ones, but also the alchemical transformation of "lowly" ghetto-style lead into accepted social-cultural gold. The difference is in emphasis; this artist is no preacher or activist. The figures in these paintings are paragons, just not necessarily the obvious hope, courage, or fortitude we expect from the former. Instead, by the artist’s admission, they represent mainly an ability to look good and exude some form of personal charisma. And that they do.
Which begs the question, how different are these paintings really from the latest round of videos on MTV Raps, cast simply for type? I don’t see them doing anything different in kind from what has dominated other media for a decade, from Pimp My Ride, to Cribs, to P Diddy or Kanye taking megalomaniacal fashion obsession to another stratosphere altogether. Like so much art now, its primary conceit is simply a shift in media venue, hoping to score points for clever recontextualization. It’s no coincidence that West’s latest cover features the art of Takashi Murakami, who has built a cash-soaked global corporation by elevating trendy pop detritus to the pinnacles of high art and consumer fashion. The post-Warholian circle is complete. We’re feeling harder, better, faster, stronger.
Into this environment, tellingly backed by Uber Pop impresario Jeffrey Deitch, Wiley’s paintings arrive with few surprises and frankly for me, very little in the way of sustainable interest. Like a stage set, beyond the initial conceptual gloss the paintings just don’t hold up to scrutiny. They look fabulous in photographs and are striking at 30 feet. But at closer quarters, you notice how the ornate sculpted gold frames, rather than gilt carved wood, are metallic-sprayed cast urethane. In the paintings, Wiley’s obviously spent a great deal of effort perfecting a visual approximation of a generic "old master"-y technique. But the surfaces have no rigor, with no real pleasures to be had there – save admiration for painstaking, seamless manufacture (I’m told he has studios on four continents now, surely necessitating a system of military precision). The life-size horses look about as realistically observed as those on a carousel. It’s all just special effects (dare I say "simulacra"?), the sole intent of which is to generate a not particularly complex idea – the emphasis being on just doing it very, very stylishly.
It’s all so slick and shiny that, beyond an initial ‘wow’, attention just slides off the work like aesthetic Teflon. It’s achingly consumable and innocuously sensational, for collectors as well as the crowds. The work certainly encapsulates some pervasive aspects of the zeitgeist and that is, after all, one of art’s primary functions. I’ll give it all that. It’s clearly well-meaning, ambitious, and doubtless heartfelt. I just wish that the artist would use his obvious gifts to demonstrate a more nuanced, less intensely fashionable sort of inquiry, be it into the nature of race, art, sexuality, or culture. There is a fine line between exploring the nature of artifice, and the art itself just being vacuously artificial.
Titus O’Brien is an artist and writer who lives in Dallas.
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