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Friday 06.08.07

« Arts = Prosperity? | Main | For You »

More Relevant than Rembrandt: Kehinde Wiley at PAM

"St. John the Baptist" Kehinde Wiley 2006

Kehinde Wiley's works at the Portland Art Museum this month are some of the most pivotal paintings to come across this city in quite some time. After venturing through the museum's labyrinthine design, the room that holds Wiley's work seems to hum, existing in its own space, despite the vast variance of the museum's collection. The paintings seem to patiently await your presence, as if they know the breadth of what they hold and do not need to vie for anyone's attention. This extraordinarily powerful collection of paintings are arranged within an intimate nook of the museum and have been provided benches - these works lure you to long consideration. They are a visual feast, and the eye devours the grace and loveliness Wiley has given the forum for his ideas.

Yet this forum asks much of you. Wiley throws chrome rococo wrenches into societal and art historical engines and asks you to watch how such seemingly simple maneuvers can change consciousness. He wants you to think about what it is that you see and how you have never seen it before within the context and combination in which it presents itself before you.

"St. Lucy" Kehinde Wiley 2006

Upon walking into the space, "St. Lucy" stands before you, silently cueing the beginning of the recreation of your histories. It is one of the two largest paintings in the show and quietly requests your lingering attention. The historic reference of both title and of his model's pose alludes to Saint Lucy, the patron saint of blindness. However, Lucy's sainthood and life are not the symbolism Wiley wishes with which to meddle, but rather her representation throughout the history of image making, namely painting. Wiley's models are actually strangers he meets on the streets and of whom he then asks to choose a pose they would like to emulate from his own collection of painting books, whose time periods span centuries and countries. "St. Lucy" depicts one such subject, a well muscled African American young man who (like a number of his contemporaries in the show) dons a doorag and wears athletic inspired clothing. His garments visually herald his very present, visceral physicality by showcasing the beauty of his cut muscles. Hot blood runs beneath the bulging veins in his forearms and Wiley embellishes the tinted glow of their painted backgrounds to skin that flows taught over strong jaws and cheekbones, succulent lips and shoulders. Carravaggio, D'Angelo and Botticelli's Birth of Venus come to mind.

"Birth of Venus" Sandro Botticelli 1482

These are figures backlit by the ethereal glow of their own power. This is a formal exaggeration of contemporary power, often employed by our most familiar form of viewing: film and television. Yet these are not portraits of models, and Wiley openly states in interviews that he does not wish to romanticize the sitter or celebrate the sheer tradition of portraiture. His exploration is the disintegration of our acceptance, a visual refusal for our visual and imaginary apathy and laziness.
"St. Lucy" embodies the contra posto

"Doryphorus" Polyclitus 440 B.C.

of the later Kouros figures. His head is slightly tilted and his long arms lead to aquiline fingers which curl delicately around flaming scepter and crown. The expression on his face is serious and direct but not at all confrontational or threatening. He is the embodiment of grace . He is thug saint and prophet, soothsayer and revolutionary: he is the icon of Wiley's work and evidence to the power of context.

Each work attests to these possibilities and the ideas Wiley wishes to explore in a subtly different but mostly very similar way. He does not limit his models in their choies of who they wish to emulate for the sitting in any way besides already owning the art books from which they are chosen. For an instant these young men embody the noblemen and women of history, those who had and deserved the honor of being painted. Their figures explore a kinetic delicacy and effeminate stance without losing face or street cred in a culture obsessed with the narrow definition of masculinity. Wiley's color palette is the timbre of our saturated today and a warm geography. He wields rose magentas, dioxazine purples and silver enameled pigments to decorate and enshroud his future saints and kings from the past. Their backgrounds wrap around their legs and chests lovingly, sneaky tendrils, holding them, becoming active. They are the pictures of physical strength, virtual perfect specimens of man: virile, strong, stoic, and powerful, while also exuding the essence of grace. Their power is tenuous, made of ideas and glass doves, and their poses make paintings that are conversations with ghosts. As they step into these roles, Wiley alters the course of history and future. Young black men have never in the history of western culture been depicted in this way.

There is a need in these works.

In our society of endlessly inadequate language, these paintings speak across space and time, altering both history and the future, rupturing the foundations of our dangerous comfort. Their ideas are not media driven, yet inform it as it continues to propulgate existing notions and flat characters.

Ironically, at the other end of the museum, Rembrandt poses in a self portrait as the Apostle Paul, adorning himself with the visual attributes associated with one of Jesus' closest advisors: a sword projecting from his doublet and an unrolled scroll. Three and a half centuries span between these two ends of the museum, and while the ideas of portraiture and the psychological and spiritual power of the pose are present and explored in both Rembrandt's and Wiley's work, what Rembrandt was doing then, three and a half centuries ago was not radical.

"Self-Portrait" Diego Velazquez c. 1640

Three and a half centuries later, Rembrandt is toothpaste and Wiley is a revolutionary.

Posted by Amy Bernstein on June 08, 2007 at 8:39 | Comments (22)


Ooooh someone's been to planet fiesty!

It's true though Rembrandt was using iconography based on a belief system that even most modern Christians barely comprehend, back then everyone knew the iconography... it's a somewhat dead language like latin and Wiley is very current. Both artists traffic in anachronism.

Still, I gotta think Rembrandt's reach far eclipses his namesake toothpaste. Will Wiley have a line of bass fishing boats named after him 400 years from now?

I also find the fact that Rembrandt toothpaste has "whitening" properties very annoying as Rembrandt van Rijn probably had the most complicated black tones of any artist.

The question with Wiley is... is he really a revolutionary or is he a good painter filling out a much needed/valid role? He's still developing too, with the career equivalent of the earliest Rembrandt in the PAM show.

I don't intend it as a slam but many of Wley's works remind me of that Seinfeld painting, "The Kramer"... yet they couldnt be more different on a lot of exciting levels.... especially after Richard's outbursts.

I have to say though Wiley takes the prize for best use of sperm in a painting ever... St. Lucy absolutely slays me with that witty decorative move.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 8, 2007 01:17 PM

These paintings suck and he went to Yale. BFD

Posted by: clarklovins [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 9, 2007 11:59 AM

Ditto. Revolutionary? Not media driven? Media as the sole contemporary cultural and political filtering engine is definitely the vernacular, and a highly unoriginal application of it at that. These paintings, while I am sure stunningly executed, are dully assimilable. This is revolution as malt-o-meal. We are all very well programmed for this experience. Everything is expertly played out, from the alluring treatment of the medium, the initial shock of appropriation and context, to the final self-satisfaction of having "gotten it". Nothing dangerous here. Seen it before, seen it done better. But they are gorgeous to look at, and (of course) sell very, very well.

Posted by: joewbrown [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 11, 2007 08:47 AM

I'm having trouble with the gold frames.... St. Lucy doesnt have one and I like that. The frames are prominent yet seem like gaudy afterthoughts... I think gaudy theatrical devices expertly tuned for maximum effect would be much better.

Anyone else have thoughts on the frames?

I like the show and though the imagery isn't revolutionary in the broader scope of western culture... they are in the rarified museum world (for some that doesnt count). Still, it is pretty exciting that they are in Portland.

He's young and I suspect will develop a lot more in the next 5 years, compositionally tese are great but I think he needs a lil of Gaijin Fujita's balls... I could see those two working together actually. His frontier is ornament and in 5 years I think he might be able to silence his critics with it. What about tile or frescos?

He will be in Portland in mid July and I hear he wants to go fishing in the Columbia... Sturgeon?

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 11, 2007 09:43 AM

While the figures stand lithe and muscled, the artist's posture is far less brawn than brain which makes for a set of dull boys.

Posted by: Norma Dee Plume [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 11, 2007 05:36 PM

Well it's a painting show not a dating service. What I like best is how the figures are portrayed as patrons and technically they are the patrons of Nike, champion, Addidas etc.... not exactly Le Dauphine but there is this "next in line" pregnancy or potential to most of the images.

Still these athletic brands are recieved forms of token heraldry and station. I find the clothes interesting... one young woman I went to grad school with studied Elizabethan dress... court life.

This is an interesting reversal.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 11, 2007 07:20 PM

Despite the inherent simplicity of the ideas and compositions behind these images, I still find it odd that no one really speaks to the real issues they address. Yes, he went to Yale. Yes, they are media driven. But the fact still remains that young African American males are not placed in these contexts. I would love more support behind the opposition to this article. I have the feeling at the moment that all of the opposition is the trend of political correctness and anti-establishment, which, without any sort of intellectual backing, seems a bit boring. Stand some ground please, dear opponents.

Posted by: Amy B [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 12, 2007 05:05 PM

What are the issues that you think the paintings address?

Young African American males aren't placed in which context? Paintings? Art History? Or the Portland Art Museum?

Posted by: jerseyjoe [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 12, 2007 06:08 PM

Corporate fluff hip-hop indulgence playing to snooty, hi-brow art circles who have left out the real (multi)cultural debate all too long.

Posted by: TJ Norris [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 13, 2007 09:12 AM

Yet, a technically proficient painter who dareth criss/cross that fine cultural line....but I stick to my original opinion after seeing the show:

"This NY-based Yale MFA has a short, yet impressive exhibition history dating only back to 2003 and the “monumental” work on view truly synergizes the much needed urban African American hip-hop culture voice in contemporary art. The huge, ornate frames alone are a gaudy statement to the overcasting young black Americans staring us in the face here. The hyper-real faces, and muscular male bodies mesh well with the contrasting floral patterns and other decorative layered elements in oil and enamel. Most of the faces are stoic, fearless, guarded. The handful of pieces in the room dominate their very own trompe l’oeil space, men as towering totems of humanity in jeans, gold chains, do-rags and sportswear. The gaze says it all."

Posted by: TJ Norris [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 13, 2007 10:50 AM


I think Wiley can transcend that possibly damning truism/concern TJ... the trick is to evolve from here. The art world is awfully white bread and it always makes one wonder how much of the buzz is because it is good and how much is just liberal guilt.

Annoying as hell that artists like Ofili and Walker were held to a higher standard to prove themselves... then again they met those challenges. Right now I think Wiley is a lil underdeveloped compared to those artists... Still he's way younger in his career and though it isnt fair I think he's got a real shot at answering all questions regarding his importance.

I think he needs a permanent architectural project... a chapel? Just paintings are a little too convenient for ambitions like the ones I sense here.

It is hilarious that Bruce chose them for a PAM show, gutsy.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 13, 2007 10:50 AM

Poor provincial Portlanders...
Kehinde's "Paintings" might as well be ink jet prints, or a pair of air jordans. They are made in China from images that he emails to the same website or "atelier" your grandma does when she wants last years christmas card translated into a "real official" oil painting. Sure believe the art in america from a few years ago that says he has assistants "only paint the backgrounds, but he of course saves the figures for himself" if you want... But if you would just open your eyes for a second you would realize that he is just another oppurtunist, if anything worse since he attempts to present himself as genuine, which itself is funny since entire tomes could be written on how ironic it is that he employs the new sweatshop labor to expose the horrors oh the old...
But there's one question none of you are capable of asking, why didn't he just do this in the first place? It would have been a conceptual attempt worth debating, but instead he just goes back to fooling all the "whities" with his blackness.....

Posted by: bam [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 13, 2007 01:02 PM

Entire tomes could be written about how Arvie Smith only uses white models for his black goddess paintings, how William Pope L's audience is made up of mostly white people, how Damali Ayo's biggest patron is a white woman, and how black artists who don't make work that reads a "true" to the black experience to white people, aren't very successful.

But then we're talking about everything but the art.

Posted by: jerseyjoe [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 13, 2007 02:15 PM

No, really, these paintings suck.

Posted by: clarklovins [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 13, 2007 02:58 PM

They suck? I don't think anyone with a critical eye could simply write these paintings off as easily as just saying they "suck". That is just plain lazy. Granted, saying these paintings are more relevant than Rembrandt, is a hard pill to swallow (even though Amy is probably right). Either way, the paintings certainly do not "suck."

Posted by: Calvin Ross Carl [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 13, 2007 03:30 PM

With regards to AmyB's comment:
The trend of political correctness? Do you mean the one that gasped in the nineties? Anti-establishment? The Smithson version, the Noland version, or the Rhoades version? Each seem very out of touch and irrelevant criticisms of the opposition found here, and suggest another attempt at elevating the work to a place it really does not occupy. I wish your enthusiasm were more infectious! I guess I want to like the work, but just don't. At least, certainly not for the reasons you offer, which grant a level of accomplishment the work does not possess. (As a side note, I honestly find the comments on Rembrandt specious, but that's an entirely other matter...more relevant than Rembrandt? An "A" list painter comes to Portland, and suddenly he's more relevant than Rembrandt. It must be a slow month.)
It seems really simple: I appreciate the lusciousness of these paintings, very baroque. Of our excess. However, the nature of Wiley's recontextualizations calls to mind Sandow Birk, Jeff Wall, Eve Sussman-the only difference here being its' specificity as an African American call and response. Is that enough to make it revolutionary? Well, I can say that they are of a piece. Meaning that I do not believe, having seen one or two, that the next three or four will be radically different. "Seen one..." I can also say that after viewing them, I am not distracted from dinner conversation and I certainly do not see the world any differently. I, in fact, feel quite chuffed with myself that I am so very visually and culturally savvy that I can locate any number of readings that fit quite safely into the Western world. And, if I had thousands of dollars, I could purchase one to view daily in order to remind myself of how "on it" I am. Hmmm...actually, sounds a bit like Rhoades, without the awesome benefit of feeling as though I paid someone to insult me. Which is one of many reasons Rhoades rules. Gotta love it.
So-Revolutionary? Hardly. Clever? Hell yes.
Yuck. The benefits of a boom market. Which is, perhaps, the true subject matter of the work. One can only hope.

Which brings me back to the previous post. It is so much fun to banter, but we are still not really talking about the art, just riffing. Doesn't say much for the art, but telling nonetheless.

Posted by: joewbrown [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 13, 2007 03:53 PM

Are you all so in love with the sound of your own voices that you can't here the truth? blah blah blah portland.
Blah blah blah black can and are and will be slave drivers too. To comment further on this "man's" paintings is stupid.
What was everone in portland a breech baby?
Or maybe you are just all bitch babies...

Posted by: bam [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2007 09:24 AM

by the way ***removed*** joewbrown, no nothing is clever about a black artist make black art about being black...

***[warning, no namecalling -the management]***

Posted by: bam [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2007 09:26 AM

Wow! To elicit such a response demands reconsideration! Perhaps I stand corrected...maybe Wiley is revolutionary. :)

Posted by: joewbrown [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2007 04:35 PM

damali ayo spells her name entirely in lower case.

Posted by: sims [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2007 10:13 PM

I find it pretty astounding that the Wiley show has created such a debate. I guess that's refreshing (I wish that every decent show in town could cull such dialog), although the downside of the blog format is apparent here with the brain-dead patter from a couple folks.

I finally saw the show today. It was my first time in the new wing (been gone awhile) and I was a little befuddled at the random feeling of the collection as I came down the corridor (I'm seeing Laurie Reid, Su-en Wong and Roxy Paine all in a row and just going, huh?), but the small gallery at the end does lend itself to a reverential, almost chapel-like mood.

My feeling had been, going into the show, that Mr. Wiley is obviously a very talented young artist, with a knack for spectacle, and one pretty great idea that he's been riding hard for the last few years. The show didn't really change that perception, although I found myself discovering new and subtle layers to what I had previously dismissed as pretty straightforward stuff. I think Wiley's paintings are more complicated than they seem, and that one can experience these pieces on several levels.

They are not made in China (in case anyone was giving that person half an ear), but they are indeed made mostly by assistants now (Wiley still does the hands and faces). Many successful painters in New York are on crazy production schedules and use several assistants, but it seems from this discussion that Wiley's prolific output is starting to overshadow the work. I really don't think he intends the marketability of these things to become another dimension of the project in like a, say, Jeff Koons kind of way. Although standing before the towering visage of St. Lucy today, I snickered to think that there are probably a few collectors with Wiley's work who would cross the street to avoid the subjects in real life, but fawn over their beauty on the mansion walls.

It feels absurd to compare Wiley to Rembrandt, given that we don't even know if Wiley will be a successful midcareer artist yet, much less a lasting influence on the entire history of painting. Gajin Fujita makes a bit more sense, as they're contemporaries (and used to show at Kravets Wehby together, so I bet they know each other), although I certainly hope Wiley doesn't start putting graffiti behind his subjects. I thought instead of Silvia Sleigh (maybe because I just saw the 'WACK!' show), and her feminist revision of Manet and the male gaze. Kurt Kauper also came to mind. Like Wiley, both Sleigh and Kauper seem to get good mileage out of deceptively simple contextual shifts in the established range of portraiture.

What remains to be seen is Wiley's staying power. Like the 80s, we're seeing a lot of young hot shots who could either be this decade's equivalents of Mike Kelly- always evolving and challenging- or they could be like David Salle, coasting on the same idea, more bland each time.

Posted by: inexile [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 17, 2007 10:12 PM

Sorry about the idiots, we are cracking down, glad to see your comments.

I feel the same way....Wiley has got something but he needs to evolve a bit lest he become like Salle. Fujita made a lot of sense to me as a peer of Wiley... Aya Eukawa too (all K.W. alumni). All tend to be youth dipped in pattern. Wiley isnt as strong a patternist as those other two but he's got some other strengths... incuding better POP connections.

PAM needs a re-hang... with a lot more breathing room. The Paine is a new addition from last year. It was created not 40 feet away from where it now hangs by Paine's PMU.

Maybe if there is a major string of new aquisitions (there are some but probably not enough for a re-hang) it will be enough to rehang. I suspect they are waiting for something more major before undertaking that task.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 17, 2007 11:56 PM

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