Wiley Reconsidered

A Response to the Toledo Art Museum Retrospective

My first encounter with the work of artist Kehinde Wiley was in 2006, when the Columbus Museum of Art commissioned his first significant museum show. At the time Wiley had already perfected his signature theme (recasting artwork from the canon of Western classical art with contemporary models, chiefly young African-American men from lower socioeconomic levels) and was hovering on the cusp of becoming an art-world superstar.

He has continued to grow and mature in the subsequent decade, and must now be counted among the most important living artists working today. Viewing a retrospective of his work at the Toledo Art Museum last month was an illuminating experience, both due to the screening of documentaries detailing the complexity of his current artistic process, and to the inclusion of some telling examples of his earlier work.

For Wiley (as was true for many of his Renaissance forebears) artmaking is a corporate enterprise, involving the labors of several teams of what we might call “sous-artists” (by analogy with “sous-chef”) who create the finely detailed, hand-painted ornate backgrounds that feature in the majority of Wiley’s paintings, and who even assist with aspects of the figures. Is it because Wiley’s paintings celebrate artifice that this revelation fails to rankle? Rather, I would venture it is because Wiley’s work, although richly sensual, is primarily conceptual at its root. We can demonstrate this with the help of three early works at the Toledo Museum (two from the show, and one from the permanent collection).

The first is an image of a young black man, taken from a mugshot, but re-imagined as a portrait. Although absent all the characteristic traits of a modern Wiley –no classical pose, no elaborate background, no life-sized, head-to-toe portrait –the piece nonetheless captures Wiley’s core concept, of sympathetically re-envisioning members of an often despised, stereotyped or overlooked segment of the population as proper and fit subjects of fine art. The second image is of a young man in street clothes, somewhat awkwardly portrayed, surrounded by gilt fleur-de-lys floating haphazardly in the air. Here we see all of Wiley’s signatures in evidence, yet we also note how much less powerful they are in this more basic “do-it-yourself” version, as opposed to the later, resource-intense version produced by the entire team of artists.

Finally, we see an image from Wiley’s early, less critically-acclaimed series of celebrity portraits, this one fearing Michael Jackson attired as a Medieval prince. Here, all the lush opulence of the work seems oddly trite and flat. The reason is that Jackson is (or was) wealthy and powerful in his own right. The portrait of him as a prince is not far off from either his own apparent self-image, or how he portrayed himself to the world. There is no transformative power in his portrait.

In the mature Wiley work, on the other hand, the entire point is that it takes someone without wealth, power or fame, someone whom society is predisposed to think little of (initially just young black men, but now increasingly including women and people of diverse ethnic backgrounds), and shows them as worth the attentions of not only one artist, but an entire team of them, followed by display in the great museums of the world, side-by-side with the classical portraits of the wealthy, powerful and famous. This stark dichotomy between subject and presentation is brought into vivid relief in a scene from one of the documentaries, in which the young women who serve as models learn that their portraits are each singly worth as much as they might reasonably expect to make over the course of an entire lifetime of lower middle-class employment.

This does raise a painful question. Is Wiley exploiting his anonymous models, and even more anonymous stable of artists? Is is merely ironic, or actively hypocritical that the painter has become rich and influential in actuality, whereas his subjects have become so only within the illusionary world of the paintings?

While “where does the money come from?” and “where does it go?” are certainly a legitimate questions for any among us to be asked, in this case, I feel it largely misses the point. Wiley’s work is about the transformative power of art, and the ability of the artist’s eye to impact society’s perceptions. What he offers his artists and his models is an encounter with that. If we believe in those things, and their importance, we must believe they are valuable in of themselves, irrespective of fiscal remuneration.

Ultimately, Wiley stands near the head of a very small circle of artists who have solved the essential problem of this current era in art: how to make work that is simultaneously beautiful and meaningful. To put it another way, the importance of Wiley is that he is rare, if not unique, as a contemporary conceptual artist, creating work with a deeply subversive sociopolitical agenda, but whose work nonetheless possesses all the sensual, unmediated and humane aesthetic pleasures of classical portraiture.

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