OMNP strives to show the importance of Old Masters by underscoring their resonance today. In doing so, we will regularly profile a Contemporary artist who has been directly influenced by the work of Old Masters. Today, OMNP explores the paintings of Kehinde Wiley, one of the more established young painters today, whose new series of portraits from his “World Stage” series just opened at The Studio Museum in Harlem.
Why can’t we give the full stamp of approval to Kehinde Wiley? Mainly, because his work feels ambivalent. The concept behind his past series, which explored the cultural identity of the male minority by channeling it through the aristocratic templates of the past was ingenious. Finding a common thread of nobility between contemporary African American/hip hop culture and the archetypes of high society was another step in the former movement’s appropriation of the latter. Forget rappers citing Louis Vuitton and Audemars Piguet. The infiltration of Old Master paintings and the historical weight of centuries behind portraits of powerful white men is much more compelling.
Wiley has found a niche to exploit here-but is it a purely superficial interrogation? While painting Ice-T in a throne or profiling the Notorious B.I.G. with the Fleur-de-Lis coat of arms may bestow a lavish sense of prominence upon them, it does not necessarily capture the rebellious essence that these legends have come to be revered by. The King of New York, after all, rose to power on his own terms. A link between him and the European royalty of the past therefore becomes a shaky one, at best.
Despite these pieces, Wiley would probably think of such an analysis as an oversimplification of his work as a whole. In a recent interview with Giant magazine, he addressed such labeling:
“My earlier work became placed with the reduction ‘hip-hop meets Old Masters..I never understood why when dealing with the young black male body it is immediately reduced to hip-hop.”
Nevertheless, when Wiley is doing portraits of guys wearing “Stop Snitching” t-shirts, a well documented colloquialism popularized by rappers like Cam’ron, it’s a little hard to immediately move past such generalizations, or dispute fact that hip hop culture has major ties to the African American experience.
A desire to move past such pigeonholing perhaps provided the grounds for his new work at the Studio Museum of Harlem, which looks to be stronger. In this recent work, Wiley’s model was used to depict male minorities from around the world. In the same interview, he explains that his new series is about “broadening that conversation, which looks at black and brown, and how identity comes about not only culturally but historically.”
From a quick look at the show, portraits like “Place Soweto, National Assembly,” have more of a presence to connect with. Their gaze holds the viewer’s attention, and Wiley seems to have made better aesthetic choices. The coloring of their clothes and skin are more vibrant and the subjects have more vitality. Their poses seem a little more natural, as opposed to the light pastels and stiff forms found in Wiley’s previous series. Maybe he is getting away from the idea of forcing his subjects into some anachronistic pose from 17th Century portraiture.
Regardless of critical opinion, there is no doubt that this guy has had a big impact on the art world, and is a prominent example of how Old Masters aesthetics are very much alive. OMNP is patiently awaiting (and perhaps planning) the exhibition that would pit Wiley’s work against some of the Old Master paintings that he specifically draws from.
Kehinde Wiley: The World Stage: Africa Lagos~Dakar at the Studio Museum in Harlem, on view until October 26th, 2008. Check www.studiomuseum.org for more information.
An interview of Wiley, from his recent inclusion in the exhibition, “RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture,” at the National Portrait Gallery, can be listened to here.