Los Angeles

Kehinde Wiley

Tiepolo’s oval-shape Apotheosis of Admiral Vettor Pisani, ca. 1743, depicts our Italian military hero being introduced by Venus to Jupiter and Mars; all float together amid auroral light, puffy clouds, and cute putti. Two of Kehinde Wiley’s most recent paintings, Apotheosis of Admiral Vettor Pisani #1 and #2 (all works 2003), center a handsome lone black dude in a field of color against a pattern at once heraldic, Islamic, and Gucci-esque. Vettor Pisani #1 mugs in a white T-shirt and baggy jeans against a vibrant red ground with turquoise fleurs-de-lis while six blush roses make a sort of arch; Vettor Pisani #2 sports a hot orange hoodie at a quasi-Hindu altar of sperm against a background that fades from navy to robin’s-egg blue. Baroque-ish gilded frames situate these flashy, Vegas-y paintings as the spunky start of, well, something.

Not completely blinded by all the bling bling and despite such exhibition titles as “Passing/Posing” and “Faux/Real,” I’d like to point out that most talk (even the artist’s own) about the work restricts itself to references to the baroque, to Tiepolo and Titian, to the sublime. But if this is contempo baroque, it’s sponsored as much by Donatella Versace as by Carl Philip von Greifenklau. While Wiley’s figures strike poses suggesting icono-religious significance, these postures are not to be found in Tiepolo; the sublimity here is less Edmund Burke than Delta Burke. At work is more a bizarre sublimation, as florid art-historical footnoting marks a displacement of a lack/surplus of something much more telling.

Among the sudden ejaculations of blurbs and interviews, I’ve read only a single thing on Wiley’s paintings that bothers to mention an erotic, despite the voguing so flamboyantly apparent. “I can’t tell if he’s some kind of straight guy passing for a macho or a queen passing for a butch fag or a queer passing for straight or what,” Jaime Cortez writes. Even more dizzying is Bontu Thompson’s line: “If you ask Russell Simmons who’s his favorite new painter, best believe Kehinde Wiley is the first name out of his lisp.” “Lisp” is perhaps the result of a sleepy copy editor, but such slips reveal the lisping unconscious of Wiley’s work as well as something about its reception. Representational jizz is obviously jazzing, as tadpoles of gold-paint love juice swim across several of the hoodies, past the paintings’ borders, and onto the wall between, linking everything in a spermatic daisy chain. Yet somehow, sexuality is played down low, way down (Tiepo)lo, articulating neither homo- nor metro-, while art-historical down lo(ad) is hyperbolically shot all over the place.

If all Wiley’s offering is a DL Kurt Kauper, Lisa Yuskavage, or John Currin, he should go away right now and take his “masters” with him. I prefer to think, as Pharrell sings, he’s frontin’; something more interesting is happening, or will, if given the chance. Surely Wiley has noticed that just as Kauper et al. can’t use paint or painting the way Balthus or Rubens did, he, Wiley, doesn’t render paint like Tiepolo or Titian. All the technique and referential mugging in the world doesn’t make art art, even if some lousy painters think it does. Wiley should figure his desire even more than he has, keep dreaming of a baroque while considering Stuart Davis, Philip Guston, and Barkley Hendricks (in terms of, respectively, abstract design and palette intensity; strangely historical yet phantasmatically loaded figuration and dizzying paint handling; and subtle, erotic beatification). He should get beyond the idea that “great” painting always shouts its historical resonances or significance; the eighteenth century “belongs” to no one and everyone. And he should question invoking the 1770s before we’ve even begun to parse the 1970s. The results could be messy and strange and unsusceptible to art-historical and any other kind of name checking.

Bruce Hainley