Kehinde Wiley Color-Corrects Art History
De Young Museum, San Francisco, California
Continuing through Octoberr 15, 2023
The welter of mass shootings and extrajudicial executions of nonwhites by police — death squads in all but name — along with the vitriolic hatred of liberal opponents convinces me that cultural conservatives and regressive billionaires are already at war with the U.S. It is clearer with every passing day that the country’s demographic change — the ‘browning’ of America — is seen as a threat to the white dominance tragically inscribed in our founding documents. The furious pushback of the Trump era constitutes an effort to return to a version of the ‘slave power’ hierarchy of the now-resurgent Confederacy.
Kehinde Wiley, “Femme Piquée par un Serpent (Mamadou Gueye),” 2022, oil on canvas, 131 7/8 x 300”.
©️ Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Galerie Templon, Paris. Photo: Ugo Carmeni
At this political moment comes the Black pride art work of the wildly popular Kehinde Wiley, a dazzlingly talented painter and art superstar who corrects the history of oppression by inserting Black people into visual formats heretofore reserved for white Europeans: dead or dying saints, martyrs, and heroes and heroines. He literally makes his models — young, attractive Black men and women garbed in contemporary sports clothing, their names added parenthetically to Wiley’s art-historical titles — museum-quality. His current multi-gallery show at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, entitled “Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence,” features large scale works depicting reclining figures in three formats: oil paintings on canvas; bronze figures on bases or pedestals; and sculptural diorama featuring recumbent bronze figures set into wall niches behind glass-framed windows, like the relics of Catholic saints.
Kehinde Wiley, “Christian Martyr Tarcisius (El Hadji Malick Gueye)” detail, 2022, oil on canvas, 72 5/8 x 107 3/4”.
© Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Galerie Templon, Paris. Photo: Ugo Carmeni
I note in passing that the extremely harsh contrast between the lighting and the surrounding pitch darkness makes proper viewing of the works difficult. The blinding hotspots on paintings and sculptures and the surrounding Cimmerian gloom make taking in the entirety of the works optically (and photographically) all but impossible. The dramatic effect gained by this stagecraft version of Caravaggesque lighting is won at too high a cost for this viewer; the lighting should support and reveal the art rather than mystify and dazzle. Another quibble is that the mythological and art-historical references are not explained: contextual photos of Wiley’s models to compare and contrast with his interpretations would have been helpful.
Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977), “Sleep,” 2022, oil on canvas, 69 15/16 x 107 15/16”.
© Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Galerie Templon, Paris. Photo: Ugo Carmeni
The virtuoso “Morpheus (Ndeye Fatoş Mbaye)” (2022; the figures by Wiley and the colorful floral backgrounds by assistants in his Beijing studio) is representative of Wiley’s approach. The shape-shifting Greek god of dreams is depicted as a beautiful young Black man lying dead or asleep atop a blue-sheeted bed, enveloped by white and pink flower blossoms that hug the wall or wallpaper behind and float in the air in front. His carefully delineated sports attire — including a Nike Just Do It tank top and Louis Vuitton running shoes — suggests post-event physical exhaustion rather than messages from the gods or opiate addiction. Indeed, the pose and lighting suggest a marriage of Greco-Roman statuary with glossy fashion photography. The oval cameo format and the sprays of flowers suggest Victorian photography and Pre-Raphaelite medievalism.
Kehinde Wiley, “Morpheus,” 2021, bronze. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: DeWitt Cheng
Two examples of the latter take off from Henry Wallis’s 1856 sentimental work about creative suicide, “The Death of Chatterton,” and Sir John Everett Millais’ ca. 1851 “The Death of Ophelia,” illustrating the mad-scene drowning suicide that Shakespeare described, but did not stage, in Hamlet. Another of Wiley’s oval-format paintings, “Christian Martyr Narcissus (El Hadji Malick Gueye)” (2022), depicts one of three Roman soldiers under the emperor Licinius who were executed for their faith in 320 CE. Interestingly, Wiley apparently considered some early models to be surrogates for himself. In this painting, a young Black man in casual-elegant attire lies supine on a bed of flowers, his eyes closed and hands clasped in thought or prayers. The pose is repeated in the bronze of the same subject and title.
Wiley’s bronze sculptures are more convincing as sociopolitical art than are the paintings. They lack the fashion-photography vibe of the paintings, with their aggressive color and patterning. Bronze sculpture, with its somber palette and for-the-ages durability, has a close association with commemorative art, immortalizing everything from equestrian generals to reclining tomb figures decorating the lids of the sarcophagi of what were once regarded as divinely ordained monarchs.
Kehinde Wiley, “Death of Two Soldiers,” 2021, bronze. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: DeWitt Cheng
“Morpheus” (2021) depicts the god of sleeping and dreaming as a young Black woman uncomfortably perched atop eroded, overgrown stone structures. Her jeans, halter top, hoop earrings and Doc Martin boots are exquisitely rendered. “Youth Mourning” (2021) abandons the languorous reclining posture for a more emotionally expressive hunched kneeling figure, compressed and compact, face covered by hands, abandoned to grief. Sorrow is also the theme of “Death of Two Soldiers” (2021), calling to mind the martyred brothers of Narcissus, Argeus and Messalinus. The fallen brothers lie together, each with an arm extended over the other, as if in consolation, symbols of the collateral deaths of innocents in every war.
“The Virgin Martyr St. Cecilia” (2021) depicts the Roman noblewoman saved, the mythology has it, from defloration by an angel. She later survived decapitation by sword for three days, her body remaining intact, when it was discovered incorrupt, seemingly asleep, and interred in a church previously dedicated to her in Trastevere. Supernatural signs and wonders are absent in Wiley’s St. Cecilia, but the sleeping young woman in her braids, jeans miniskirt, and sandals, with her hands seeming to offer benedictions. is an emblem of peace and vulnerability. So too is “Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos” (2021), which revisits the Greek mythological theme of the woman who helped Theseus escape from the Minotaur’s Labyrinth only to be later abandoned by him.
Wiley’s take on the reliquary tradition features prone figures of his ostensibly deceased subjects set inside wall niches that suggest catacombs. He seals them behind glass windows that are framed in mahogany with gilt letters spelling out the models’ names. They’re ‘pre-need’ (to use the mortician’s euphemism) shrines for the future that testify to the artist’s early fascination with Hans Holbein the Younger’s life-sized depiction of a palpably dead “Messiah in The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1520-2), itself inspired by Matthias Grunewald’s still shockingly graphic depiction of divine mortality, the Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-6).
Kehinde Wiley, “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (Babacar Mané),” 2022, bronze. © Kehinde Wiley.
Wiley’s “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (Babacar Mané)” (2021), while less assaultive than his German forebears, clearly declares this lineage. Its female pendant piece, “The Dead Toreador (Sophie Ndiaye)” (2021) pays similar homage to Manet’s “The Dead Toreador” (1864).
It is one of the ironies of art and art history that the academic realism favored by nineteenth-century artists and their publics was soundly rejected by modernist painters who regarded realism as an aesthetic dead end morally compromised by its complicity in a corrupt and degenerate social order. After a century and a half of modernist abstraction and experimentation, culminating in today’s multi-media hybridity and conceptualism, the craft of painting is back, but this time in support of an alternative agenda correcting two millennia of Eurocentrism.
In Wiley’s case this sociopolitical corrective comes encumbered by a brightly commercial Pop look. We accept the postmodernist complexities and contradictions advanced by the artist and his many sympathetic critics and curators. There are other examples of political art that are clearer about their purposes and more impactful on the ground floor of the museum: Jack Levine’s harrowing civil-rights painting, “Birmingham ’63” (1963); Rico Lebrun’s visceral “Buchenwald Cart” (1956); Ronald Lockett’s memento mori, “Fever Within” (1995); and Purvis Young’s elegiac crime-scene painting, “A Good Man” (1980-1). All look increasingly timely these days, to our national shame. I find Wiley’s sculptures more convincing and consistent in their emotional weight, their aesthetic commitment finally more complete and convincing than the more familiar paintings.