New York

Kehinde Wiley

The Studio Museum in Harlem

Kehinde Wiley’s formula hasn’t changed much since he broke out around the time of his residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2001–2002), but the impact of his paintings has. Originally, Wiley’s juxtaposition of statuesque black men in the freshest gear mugging in poses lifted from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings and slapped on top of wallpaper-like motifs appeared lurid and forceful, even subversive. Not only were blacks occupying a milieu redolent of European decadence (as evinced by rococo and baroque ornamentation), the sexuality that has flavored portraiture throughout history here resided in men—men who were occasionally enmeshed in sperm-like design flourishes, painted by another man.

Whispers about Wiley’s process and its distinct similarity to a pick-up abounded; he apparently spotted potential models on sidewalks and invited them to his studio, where they flipped through art books in search of poses. Wiley has likened the idea to “start[ing] a conversation about power”—specifically in its inversion of normative dynamics. The merger of bling and a supercharged homoerotic gaze with a centuries-old bourgeois design conceit came off as a deliciously demure invasion, and Wiley rode out the idea as far as it could take him—pretty far, considering recent rumors that Michael Jackson has contacted Wiley for a portrait. Somewhere therein lies the rub: Wiley’s content had become codified as a style, diluting its potentially subversive impact.

In 2004—in this magazine—Bruce Hainley advised Wiley to transcend the art-historical allusions conveyed through his background decoration; he argued that the homoeroticism charging the artist’s paintings was strong enough to dispense with the persistent references, which, he suggested, betrayed insecurity about his own direction. Per- haps acknowledging that his process had become formulaic, Wiley began traveling abroad two years ago (first to China, more recently to Nigeria and Senegal) in search of models quite different from his standard. This museum exhibition—his second in New York, following his 2004 show at the Brooklyn Museum—consisted of ten paintings of Senegalese and Nigerians mimicking the poses of public sculptures of historical figures in Dakar and Lagos. The trademark brilliance of Wiley’s backgrounds remains, although the popping oranges and reds and the fowl and foliage designs seem to reflect the geography of his sitters, several of whom purse their lips, tense their rippling muscles, and shoot us viewers a come-hither stare. Sexuality is abundant in paintings like Place Soweto (National Assembly) (all works 2008), where the hands of two young fellows seem to gently graze the bottom of the canvas, and in the sultry gaze of fashion model Rubin Singleton, his eyes peering out from a pastel-hued camouflage hoodie.

Apparel and accessories—so crucial to Wiley’s paintings—are here a mix of traditional and Western. The protagonist of Benin Mother and Child holds straw farming baskets while wearing a T-shirt advertising something in Death Valley: the tentacles of America, it seems, extend to Africa’s west coast. But Senegalese and Nigerian politics feel less like a subject than an incidental by-product in Wiley’s exhibition. He situates presumably everyday people as kings, rulers, and leaders—but stops there. As much as he might argue for his references’ relevance in a dialogue about power, Wiley upends conventional social structures by conceiving portraiture as an act of thievery. He delivers Afrocentrism in a Eurocentric format. Moroever, while he retains the male gaze, he replaces its traditional target with the young and strapping men who are so constantly his muses.

Nick Stillman