New York

“Ironic/Iconic”

The Studio Museum in Harlem

Likening an artist’s work to Chagall’s is hardly most people’s idea of a compliment. Yet it’s hard to ignore a positive connection when looking at Easter Realness, 2002, a painting by Kehinde Wiley, one of three artists in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem featured in the exhibition “Ironic/Iconic.” The majestic canvas is turned forty-five degrees so that its corners touch the floor and ceiling. Two men, one wearing a pink and the other a yellow suit, seemingly drift across a decorative green-and-red ground strewn with roses. Both men float upside down while looking directly at the viewer, even as their heads bend back to imply, paradoxically, that their eyes are turned upward toward the sky. Spun visually off its axes, the canvas seems to defy gravity and perspective, translating Chagall’s romantic violinists and magical kisses into a contemporary dream scene of Sunday epiphany. With the men's neckties fluttering in the air, it’s even possible to see the painting as a lyrical revision of Robert Longo’s “Men in the City” series—a blooming tribute to urban culture as opposed to any ashen reflection.

The comparison to Chagall is most compelling when one considers that, in a sense, Wiley walks a similar line between art and individuality. Chagall looked to the folklore embedded in his living Russian Jewish heritage. Wiley similarly lifts his figures from cultural life: Numerous canvases are simple framings of black men with cornrows and sweatshirts standing alone against monochromatic grounds and hovering ornamental lattices. The works obtain a magic realism whose plain figuration owes as much to the massive mural paintings of Wiley’s native Los Angeles as to traditional portraiture and as much to the folkloristic self-mythologizing of hip-hop as to the aesthetic overtures of rococo motifs. His sparest canvases, with their transparent libidinal expression, only enhance that seductive tension. In a few smaller pieces, interlacing gold spermatozoa surround solitary gems—a subliminal sign made humorously overt, playing on clichés of desire and black masculinity. It’s hilariously easy to imagine some metaphorical rap lyric about “romancing the stone.”

Such a nuanced and unfixed treatment of cultural identity was perfectly in tune with the exhibition’s title. Unfortunately, works by other artists were less convincing. Adia Millett’s The Comfort of Synthetic Divinity, 2001-2002, recalls Duchamp’s Etant donnés, as viewers are made into voyeurs, looking through a window on a small scene constructed in one wall (sparkling electric flowers inside even resemble the shining filaments of Duchamp’s kitsch waterfall). But a juxtaposition of cross-stitched samplers reading I AIN’T YO MAMA & HE SHO AS HELL AIN’T YO DADDY and I AM NOT YOUR MOTHER AND HE SURELY IS NOT YOUR FATHER was simplistic. Millett also constructed a number of dollhouses—most miniature, one large enough to enter—filled with card tables, sawdust, and beds, all of which presented unmistakable, if meticulous, markers of class. Kira Lynn Harris contributed mostly C-prints and videos showing reflections of light on urban architecture. Although intended as refractory, ambient cityscapes, the subject was so vague as to seem the result of détournement without any point of departure.

But these misfires did not obfuscate the importance of an underlying question. One of the great unresolved stories of the past year has been the renegotiation and articulation of identity politics and theory in art, whether in Okwui Enwezor’s adoption of creolité to describe the value of regionality after a period of radical globalism, Lawrence Rinder’s assertion of rustic Americana in the most recent Whitney Biennial or Thelma Golden’s postulation of post-black art, a term for the changed inflections of race that is revisited here by the Studio Museum. Established artists like Ed Ruscha and Richard Prince have played lately with the signs of masculinity, contributing to a wide-ranging constellation of incidents suggesting that some reassertion of difference is taking place—making work by artists who touch upon such relationships (the contemporary Chagalls, as it were) as resonant as ever.

Tim Griffin