Kehinde Wiley came to the public eye in 2004. His first public exhibition was at the Brooklyn Museum. Here he exhibited a series of 18 large-scale paintings and introduced what has since become a familiar way working process. For Passing/Posing, young black males were asked to view copies of European portraits, select their favourite, then model the pose. From photographs, Kehinde Wiley then created canvasses which projected urban images into historical masterpieces. In essence, Kehinde Wiley’s art is an art of transgression, one that re-colonises space for the Black male image.
This method has had its critics. The methodology has been seen as a trick, nothing more. And the paintings have been describes as stiff and lacking expressive brushwork. In recent exhibitions, however, the play between artist and model, has brought new depths to the paintings. And the imagery has become less about urban hip-hop as complex questions of identity. The trick has revealed an artist who is a subtle trickster, a master of double imagery. In the Down exhibition of 2008, new resonances appeared as images from modern European sculpture were converted into contemporary images. Not only did male to male transmutations take place, but works figuring females were transformed into male forms. This crossing of gender, placing images at the crossroads, was done with skill and wit. Also new was the way in which the large-scale paintings spoke to one another, creating a hidden text about the visual image and musical image, about the relationship between sound, sight and death.
Curiously, The World Stage Africa, Lagos-Dakar, has been viewed as something different in the art of Kehinde Wiley. Critics have spoken of this as authentic, arguing that a Renaissance occurs because the artist has returned to origins and the Black African male offers a palette that is rich in tones: such deepens the portraiture element of Kehinde Wiley’s work. Such is nonsense. All that has happened in The World Stage Africa is that critics have become able to see the transmutations. The changes across gender and culture are clear. The artist references them, as in Dogon Couple where the Male-Female cosmic duality is replaced by a Male-Male image. And what is interesting is that Kehinde Wiley stays away from any sentimentalisation of Africa: his male figures wear street gear, not the ethnic tribal costumes so idolised by Western society (though, of course, street wear has its own tribal connections). The Africa paintings are in no way a departure from what has gone previously. They are a perfecting of the method.
In the latest work, Black Light, a series of photographs, Kehinde Wiley takes on another element of White male Western art: the photo portrait. Wonderful inversions occur as oil portrait (Van Dyck) becomes photographic portrait (Mapplethorpe/Platt-Lynes/Van Vechten) and floralisation is used to complicate the male image. Also, in Black Light two other elements collide: a wide knowledge of art history and contemporary story-telling. So, in one photograph, Pontormo’s Two Men with a Letter by Cicero (1524), a symbol of Italian society at its height, Kehinde Wiley re-creates this double masterpiece. In the Pontormo, the two men are reflections of one another. They visually re-create the Humanistic ideal of two in one, of perfect friendship. This Neo-Platonic ideal (with its “gay” over-tones) is developed by Kehinde Wiley. The faces of his two models echo the Pontormo. But whereas Pontormo uses the letter (and Cicero’s text) as a gloss, Kehinde Wiley forces it upon the viewing eye. The letter becomes a symbol of brotherhood and solidarity. The subtle tones of Pontormo are transformed into a dazzling ground of blood-red flowers. Kehinde Wiley has been an outspoken critic of how the urban musical image has lost its connection to messages…the first breakthrough hip-hop track was The Message…and the finger of Kehinde Wiley’s first figure, as in the Pontormo, points to the rubric, the message:
“When a person thinks of a true friend, he sees a reflection in the mirror. Even an absent friend is always present in the mind of a friend.”