Kehinde Wiley: Down at Deitch Projects

by David Greenberg

By repopulating art historical imagery with young African-American men, Kehinde Wiley has been infusing histrionic poses from the past with an edgy street dynamism for almost a decade now. The result of his conceptual project has been a kind of hip-hop baroque, where familiar and gaudy signposts of contemporary culture disrupt the social and political hierarchy inherent in much of classical portrait painting. And while he may fall short of inventing new icons, Wiley has certainly skewed the visual paradigms where young black men play marginalized and often menacing roles.

For his latest show at Deitch Projects Down, eight large-scale canvases easily evoke the grandeur of European masterpieces. Using Holbein’s The Dead Christ in the Tomb as a jumping-off point, Wiley navigates through the vocabulary of the warrior in repose, allowing his models (as his usual practice) to choose a specific artwork in which to reenact. The poses here are more vulnerable than the puffed-up stances for which the young artist established his reputation.

Wiley is most successful when depicting in oil the vibrant contemporary street wear of his models with painstaking skill that borders on the fetishistic. The bright orange hoody in The Virgin Martyr of St. Cecilia is a playful substitute for Stefano Maderno’s original marble shroud. The elongated end of a yellow belt dandles suggestively at the figure’s crotch and is echoed in the loose laces of his Nikes. These elements of style help refine the dichotomy between this evocative masculine pose and its very feminine source.

In Morpheus, which draws on a Jean-Antoine Houdin sculpture, the sitter’s gaze is both seductive and mischievous. All the accoutrements of hip hop are in full display: a baseball cap askance, the bling on a chain, the sagging jeans which reveal patterned folds of boxer shorts and the most delicate hint of skin. Accessories like these ironically feel rather naturalistic in paintings where elaborate floral backgrounds seem to be trying to break loose from their fussy compositional positions.

Although slightly flat with his handling of paint, Wiley is still able to imbue his figures’ skin with an almost religious glow. Yet, however imperial the pictorial set-up may be, the eroticism inherent to figures in repose flirts with the farcical—just as the hyperbole of hip-hop often borders on the ridiculous. While these young men seem more than comfortable in their own skin, it should be interesting to see how their self-image will evolve in the age of Obama. Likewise, Kehinde Wiley’s depictions of young African-Americans are approaching a crossroads, as the very picture of black power in America moves from music video fantasy to a daily televised reality.