Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

An Aesthetic of Objectification: Kehinde Wiley's Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha

Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

An Aesthetic of Objectification: Kehinde Wiley's Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT:

Containing elements of hip hop culture, contemporary fashion, and classical European art traditions, Kehinde Wiley's signature paintings imitate famous Renaissance paintings, but he replaces the depictions of rich, aristocratic Europeans with urban, black men. This format enables Wiley to subvert the power relations embedded in certain art history traditions. However, Wiley's recent art shifts from this approach. In his "Economy of Grace" exhibit at the Sean Kelly Gallery, Wiley presents a series of images that depict black women in place of the white subjects of famous paintings. Unlike his male subjects who wear casual clothes, Wiley's female subjects appear in elegant gowns designed by Riccardo Tischi, the Creative Director of Givenchy. On the surface level, Wiley's "Economy of Grace" appears to objectify black women, replacing the agency of his subjects with visual, ornate beauty. However, a closer examination reveals that Wiley seems to directly confront the idea of objectification in his paintings. This analysis examines the painting, Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (2012), to reveal Wiley's aesthetic of objectification, a form of painting that exaggerates power relations in order to expose the convention of objectifying women as beautiful objects in paintings.

Enormous, arresting images of black males in urban clothing feature prominently in Kehinde Wiley's early work. Drawing from sources, such as hip hop culture, contemporary fashion, and classical European art traditions, Wiley's paintings imitate famous artworks, but he replaces the depictions of rich, aristocratic Europeans with urban, black men. For example, his painting, The Virgin with the Host (2009), recapitulates the arrangement of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' The Virgin with the Host (1852), by replacing the religious image of Mary with a black male who appears in the same pose. This format enables Wiley to subvert the power relations embedded in certain art history traditions. By infusing images of black males into his recreations of famous works, Wiley develops a distinctive brand of art that uses black male subjects symbolically to challenge conventional art standards of beauty, sophistication, and representation.

Although Wiley's artistic reputation stems from the way in which his early aesthetic confounds traditional notions of black masculinity, Wiley's recent work turns to a new subject: black females. In his "Economy of Grace" exhibit at the Sean Kelly Gallery, Wiley presents a series of images that depict black women in place of the white subjects of famous paintings.1 Unlike his male subjects who wear urban clothes, Wiley's female subjects appear in elegant gowns designed by Riccardo Tischi, the Creative Director of Givenchy.2 In many ways, Wiley's "Economy of Grace" commodifies images of black women. The presence of women in elegant dresses who, in many paintings, turn their backs to the viewer portrays his female subjects as submissive objects of beauty to be gazed upon by the viewer. However, a closer examination reveals that Wiley seems to directly confront the idea of obj edification in his paintings. Although he objectifies the women in these paintings, he highlights the process of obj edification and the very terms on which obj edification is constructed. In particular, the painting, Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (2012), exemplifies Wiley's engagement with the idea of obj edification and the male gaze. An examination of this painting reveals Wiley's aesthetic of obj edification, a form of painting that exaggerates power relations in order to expose the convention of objectifying women as beautiful objects in paintings.

In order to understand Wiley's artistic intervention in Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, it is crucial to understand the two paintings to which it responds: Sir Edwin Lanseer's Princess Victoire of SaxeCoburg-Gotha (1839) and Johannes Yermeer's The Music Lesson (1662). …

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