I'd been showering in a public swimming pool's locker room, my eyes closed and my mind wandering, when I was yanked back to reality by the voice of an acquaintance. "So!" she'd said. "Are you excited about the Kehinde Wiley show?"
"No," I'd said, feeling like a killjoy.
Prior to Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, the new Seattle Art Museum exhibition that originated at the Brooklyn Museum, I had seen Wiley paintings only one at a time, at art fairs, in the occasional group show, or hung in the formal dining room of fictional hiphop mogul Lucious Lyon on TV's hit drama Empire. In those one-off appearances, I saw a formula repeated over and over: Black artist finds young Black men on the streets, casts them as the kings and nobles in Old Master paintings, and adds mesmerizing flowery, ornate backgrounds.
Bling and virtue. What greater cultural currencies do we have in today's super-conflicted Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter America? Wiley offers an easy win for both sides. People and institutions at the top of the American capitalist ladder love his paintings.
And yet during my research for this new exhibition, and in my experiences interviewing Wiley and attending the opening events, I also began to notice the ways sophisticated people tell simple, uncritical stories about these paintings. I wondered whether Wiley wasn't too easily embraced and too easily dismissed.
AGENCY AND EXPLOITATION
"The way the artist works is that he finds people on the street, he invites them into his studio to pose, and they decide which clothes they want to wear, they decide the image they want to be part of," began a SAM curator introducing Wiley.
"They have agency in the process," this curator emphasized to the crowd of assembled media, as if to reassure the mostly white crowd that Wiley hadn't sold out his people to make these paintings, that he was still the guy who grew up in the 1980s in South Central Los Angeles with his five siblings and single mother, his Nigerian father remaining out of the picture back in Nigeria. It felt queasily like a reassurance that the museum world has deemed him Black enough.
The story of Wiley's intimate process of "streetcasting" is commonly circulated, the favorite narrative about his work. It's also a gross oversimplification. Sometimes he works the way the curator described, although he's hardly straight-up collaborating with subjects when he turns the hypermasculinity of their street clothes and fronting poses into homoerotic fantasias.
Other times, people in remote countries whom he's selected after seeing them on a beach or a street come the following day to line up outside his makeshift studio, and they're each photographed to be considered for a painting, but none may ever know they've been chosen. One sweet-faced Brazilian boy with dyed blond hair found out Wiley had painted him when Wiley released the image rights to FIFA and the boy found his image plastered on billboards across his nation during the World Cup.
The common preemptive defense of Wiley's ethic raises the question of why he'd be on trial in the first place. In a body of artwork that points to hundreds of years of art's failure to represent Black humanity, it seems strange to begin by cross-examining a Black artist on the subject of exploitation.
I asked the curators about this; they demurred. Wiley arrived to the tour a few minutes later and told the curious crowd: "There are people here that I got from modeling agencies. Internet photos. Eighty percent of it is the narrative that you are perceiving, but I never want you to get the feeling that you know what you are getting."
What I discovered in A New Republic is that Wiley is a diligent researcher who layers his paintings with conflicting codes, and that his paintings both humanize and dehumanize his subjects, sometimes at the same time, and varying across works. They are not actually formulaic. They are queerer than that.
When I say "queerer," I mean in both sexuality and oddness, a certain refusal to be placed on one or the other side of a binary split. Are Wiley's subjects trapped in stereotypes or freed to be individuals? It really depends on which of his paintings you're talking about. Many, but not all, are titled after the Old Master works that inspired them, with no further information about the sitter.
In Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, Wiley adapts an 1801 Jacques-Louis David painting of the emperor on a rearing horse into a giant, absurd picture of a Black man in hiphop hetero street drag—meaning: the clothes the man walked in with, which Wiley, but maybe not the man, recognizes as a type of drag. It seems important to keep in mind that Napoleon had a Napoleon complex. Wiley is not just lifting his undervalued subject to the level of a high-art icon, he's making fun of the fakeness in high art, in European colonialist statecraft, and in criminalized and sexualized Black masculinity (what Touré has called "the plantation of criminal expectations").
In that picture, Wiley painted swimming spermatozoa into the background and onto the scrotal corners of this gold frame, in case anyone were to miss that this expensive art was also cheap, queer kitsch. But other works are far more earnest, even loving toward their subjects. There are many variations on the theme.
One disappointment in A New Republic is that some of Wiley's smaller, less outrageous works are shuffled off to a side hallway gallery. They represent Wiley's forays into places including Haiti and India. The first time Wiley portrayed Black women, he did it by encasing them in expensive dresses and elaborate hairdos. But his 2013 Portrait of Mary Hill, Lady Killigrew (after Anthony Van Dyck) features a woman unlike the stagy females. She wears a bodysuit and black fishnets, and read to me at first as a man. Hers is the kind of painting I want to research, in order to pick at the locks that Wiley has embedded in the clothing, background, expression, relationship to Van Dyck—and the ultimate locked quality of all: who she is.
Portraits are often judged based on their ability to communicate that special something that makes the sitter an individual, but that standard is not appropriate for many of Wiley's portraits. The early pictures especially are meta-portraits, depictions not of individuals but of the accumulated habits of portraiture. One of these unquestioned habits is the viewer's quest to figure out—or the critic's declaration of (I've done this before)—which portraits are authentic to the sitter, even while not knowing the sitter. Walking through A New Republic, I found myself questioning my own perceptions of which aspects in any given painting I was attributing as individual, and which as stereotype, and not always trusting that I knew.
At the start of his career, Wiley's paintings focused on Black American masculinity and sexuality. Twelve years ago, he went to Beijing for a few weeks to visit, fell in love with a man, and stayed, opening a studio there and learning the language. (He is now in the process of opening another studio in Dakar. To make his paintings, he employs assistants. People sometimes dislike this. My rule is this: First consider that Rubens and many Old Masters worked this way, and then decide whether you are still distressed.)
In recent years, Wiley has become focused on American insecurity and the distinctions of racialized colorism in countries like China and Israel (in an ongoing series called World Stage), and how using an intimate scale and materials like bronze sculpture and stained glass change the way we see individuality and group identity. His small, devotional altarpieces, derived from 15th-century pictures by Hans Memling, sometimes borrow the original paintings' backgrounds. These smaller works either bring out the individuality of their sitters more than the giant ones—I immediately recognized one as Craig, Wiley's partner, after meeting him just once—or their scale merely increases the odds that a viewer will see them as individuals.
I did come away with the feeling that Wiley is growing away from ironic meta-portraiture and more toward his own curiosity about the difficulties in portraying individuals across cultures.
His next show, in London, will be the product of visiting and working with subjects from the village where his father grew up. Some of them are his relations. I'm fascinated to see how that changes his gaze, and the pictures, or doesn't. He did say that he's giving up the William Morris backgrounds and instead creating fields of the crops used to feed slaves brought to America.
A BITTERSWEET SENSATION
Wiley sits for interviews in SAM's quiet lobby. He's wearing a suit, presumably custom-made, like all his others by his Beijing tailor, and he's just removed dark sunglasses that I expected he might keep on. His entourage of two, including Craig, sits in chairs somewhat far away but close enough to hear.
Wiley surveys the scene, shares that he plans to spend the next day chartering a boat to fish, and surprises me by revealing that he gave himself his own treatment first.
"I've never talked about it, actually, but in high school and junior high, when I was doing copyist-type work, instead of painting others in these grand [scenes], there's these cringeworthy, embarrassing paintings of me, this chubby little 16-year-old kid in the officer's uniform and stuff like that," he says. "I've never shown them."
At the time, it was "empowering." It was a child's way of understanding empowerment.
Today, nearing 40, the word he uses today to describe his paintings is not "empowering." It's "bittersweet."
"My work is about that sad underbelly of what you're seeing here, because in the end, I'm not transforming anyone's life; in the end, I'm not changing negative history or stereotypes," he says. "All I'm doing is rubbing these two oppositional forms together and creating a sensation that's bittersweet because the art points to something, but it's not in and of itself a redemptive act."
I now keep that distinction in my mind as I try to look more closely.