Wiley Style

New York

Left: Artist Kehinde Wiley with UBS wealth manager Chris Apgar. Right: Studio Museum curator Christine Kim, Lulu, and Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden. (Except where noted, all photos: David Velasco)

“Kehinde. Wiley. The World. Stage. Africa. Lagos. Dakar,” proclaimed an echoey DJ via all-weather speakers bolted above the entrance to the Studio Museum in Harlem on Wednesday night. Noising up the crowd, another palpitating Afrobeat rhythm unfurled, and despite the onus of July heat waves in Manhattan, nobody wanted to wait to have a good time.

This section of Wiley’s ongoing “World Stage” project is also his first solo exhibition at the museum, as well as a homecoming of sorts to the place where, as an artist-in-residence in 2001, the painter honed his current style: gigantic oil-on-canvas portraits of young black men in poses derived from classical forms, with richly patterned backgrounds in bright hues and flamboyant curlicues harking back to everything from the Arts and Crafts movement to indigenous textiles of all stripes. Fans sated themselves in the gallery space with noses an inch from the paintings’ immaculate surfaces, or with prolonged hand-on-chin stares at six feet, or from a perch on the museum’s unusual balcony. The mood in the gallery rested somewhere between quietly reverential and familial; security guards couldn’t have been more relaxed as guests glided about in a mellow slipstream, and dealer Jeffrey Deitch and Deitch director Nicola Vassell negotiated sales and whispered in each other’s ears at the nucleus of the gallery space. The thrills began in an adjacent air-conditioned vinyl marquee that stretched the length of the museum, erected for the evening with two open bars, and liberally sprinkled with placards advertising an African rum distillery, the evening’s designated intoxicator. Museum director Thelma Golden snacked on popcorn while some downtown fashion dorks meandered about looking lost, out of the spotlight for the night. A live DJ went from playing full Fela Kuti sides to incendiary hip-hop classics, and a considerable dance floor took shape. A New York Times photographer seemed to suffer paroxysms of puppy love for several guests, not least Vasell, who led him on a merry dance all night long. It was hard to fault the nakedness of his feelings in such a crowd.

Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch, Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman, and Andy Cohen. Right: Artists Varda Caivano and Chris Ofili.

This is the nature of the Wiley experience: Since 2001, the thirty-one-year-old painter has built a lucrative practice through consistency, both in work executed and in celebration done properly. I have harbored warm feelings for him for years, since a Sunday-night fish fry—Wiley and actor David Alan Grier’s Atlantic catches—that remains the only sincere fun I’ve experienced at Art Basel Miami Beach, though I have been ambivalent toward the formulism, market friendliness, and respectability of the artist’s neo-Duveen classicism for almost as long. Veteran Chicago dealer Rhona Hoffman wouldn’t abide my discreet misgivings as I commented on the artist’s travel schedule and vivacious social presence en route to Deitch’s lavish dinner for a few hundred at the Alhambra Ballroom, around the corner from the museum. “Kehinde is in the studio,” she told me, “working his butt off, all the time. He will not stop.” I commended her for her support, even though it was Jeffrey’s night to bank checks. “I’m getting India,” she said, referring to one of the countries soon to feature on Wiley’s “World Stage.” (Another is Brazil.)

Come speech time, between salad and salmon, Deitch deferred to Brian Keith Jackson, a writer whose excellent profile of Wiley featured in the otherwise frighteningly generic Giant magazine plopped on every place setting. The crowd quieted as Jackson spoke of coming full circle, of a leg of the artist’s journey completed that evening, and of the artist’s capacity to build bridges. It was noted that Wiley went to Nigeria eleven years ago to find the father who had left before his birth. Satisfied and rather moved, I turned to my neighbor, Studio Museum assistant curator Naomi Beckwith. “Not just bridging the gap but making the world whole,” she said, nodding. On my other flank, artist Rashawn Griffin, another former SMH artist-in-residence, and participant in this year’s Whitney Biennial, pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows in demure, tacit approval.

Left: Artist Rashawn Griffin. Right: Artists Tanea Richardson, Marcus Zilliox, and Peter Halley.

There followed a reflective lull, an ideal cue for the surprise entrance of the Houses of Ninja and Xtravaganza, whose pneumatic voguing routine was met by spontaneous and more-than-merited squeals, whistles, and calls for an encore (granted). Hoffman scurried around taking photographs, and an until-then-flinty Glenn O’Brien stood up from his seat and grinned from ear to ear. (“I haven’t seen them in twenty years,” he told me before climbing into a waiting car at night’s end.) The Houses’ MC threw “How YOU doing?” at the crowd as the dancers strutted from the ballroom. Criticism had felt pointless for a while. At that moment, we were all thriving.

William Pym

Left: Artists Glenn Ligon, Karen Azoulay, and Muna El Fituri with curator Joseph Wollen. Right: Artist Kalup Linzy.

Left: Collector Dr. Cheryl Benard with Deitch Projects director Nicola Vassell. Right: Dealer Rhona Hoffman. (Photos: William Pym)

Left: Artist Leslie Hewitt. Right: Brooklyn Museum curator Eugenie Tsai and Artists Pension Trust chairman David Ross.

Left: A performer at the dinner. Right: New York's Amina Akhtar with artist Jeremy Kost.

Left: Artist Mike Cloud. Right: Artist Lainie Dalby and Scenic's Simon Watson.