Magazine article Artforum International

Kehinde Wiley: Studio Museum in Harlem

Magazine article Artforum International

Kehinde Wiley: Studio Museum in Harlem

Article excerpt

Kehinde Wiley's formula hasn't changed much since he broke out around the time of his residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2001-2002), but the impact of his paintings has. Originally, Wiley's juxtaposition of statuesque black men in the freshest gear mugging in poses lifted from seventeenth-and eighteenth-century paintings and slapped on top of wallpaper-like motifs appeared lurid and forceful, even subversive. Not only were blacks occupying a milieu redolent of European decadence (as evinced by rococo and baroque ornamentation), the sexuality that has flavored portraiture throughout history here resided in men--men who were occasionally enmeshed in spermlike design flourishes, painted by another man.

Whispers about Wiley's process and its distinct similarity to a pickup abounded; he apparently spotted potential models on sidewalks and invited them to his studio, where they flipped through art books in search of poses. Wiley has likened the idea to "start[ing] a conversation about power"--specifically in its inversion of normative dynamics. The merger of bling and a supercharged homoerotic gaze with a centuries-old bourgeois design conceit came off as a deliciously demure invasion, and Wiley rode out the idea as far as it could take him--pretty far, considering recent rumors that Michael Jackson has contacted Wiley for a portrait. Somewhere therein lies the rub: Wiley's content had become codified as a style, diluting its potentially subversive impact.

In 2004--in this magazine--Bruce Hainley advised Wiley to transcend the art-historical allusions conveyed through his background decoration; he argued that the homoeroticism charging the artist's paintings was strong enough to dispense with the persistent references, which, he suggested, betrayed insecurity about his own direction. Perhaps acknowledging that his process had become formulaic, Wiley began traveling abroad two years ago (first to China, more recently to Nigeria and Senegal) in search of models quite different from his standard. …

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