By Simone Drake | @SimoneCDrake | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Thursday, June 4, 2015.
California-native and New York-based artist, Kehinde Wiley, has established a highly recognizable painting style. In order to write African Americans largely, but also African-descended people globally, into historical, imperialist narratives as subjects rather than objects, Wiley inserts these raced figures—almost entirely male—into European visual art “masterpieces.” Wiley replaces the white European aristocracy with “everyday” black and brown people whose participation he solicits on the streets, initially in Harlem and, now, globally.
Wiley is best known for his photo-derived, grandiose images of young, urban, black men appropriating the stance and gestures of the subjects of classic Baroque and Rococo paintings. These massive portraits have displayed black men as heroic, confident, and regal, as in one of his most famous portrait paintings Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005). But, they have also represented black men as tragically vulnerable and simultaneously beautiful, as in his Down series.
While art critics consistently note Wiley’s adoption of European conventions in the larger than life paintings that appropriate the originals, attention is not paid to subtle nuances. A particularly important nuance is how Wiley redirects and, therefore, empowers the gaze. The portrait Officer of the Hussars (2007) appropriates Romantic painter Théodore Géricault’s Officer of the Imperial Guard on Horseback (1812). In this portrait Wiley adds his trademark Baroque and Rococo decorative patterned backdrop to his rendition along with a black man—this time the man is wearing a white ‘wife-beater,’ relaxed-fit denim jeans worn at his hips, tan suede Timberland boots, and a purple satin jacket with rainbow-colored lining that is halfway on. With a saber in his right hand and a firm grip on the reins of the horse with his left hand, the male subject is seated on a bucking stallion that is positioned diagonally on the canvas, so that the subject must twist at his waist in order for viewers to see his face. Géricault’s rider does the same, but with a difference. Géricault’s rider’s gaze is directed toward the ground; Wiley’s rider is looking straight ahead, meeting the viewer’s gaze. It is, in fact, a repeating style in Wiley’s male portraits that the subject’s gaze is penetrating, demanding even.
Even before their arrivals on the shores of the Americas, it was firmly established that enslaved Africans were not to make eye contact with their white captors. The gaze was restricted to white evaluation and observation of black bodies. After emancipation, race codes continued to prevail, forcing black citizens to avert their gaze in the presence of whites. While Wiley surely reaches a black audience—most notably through several of his portraits being featured on Fox TV’s Empire—a white audience and white consumers are surely larger than his black audience. Thus, the penetrating gaze of his subjects reflects an agency in a position that once rendered them vulnerable and subordinate. And, to read deeper, in Officer of the Hussars, for example, given the homoerotic desire that both the posture of the rider’s body and prominent curvature of his exposed derrière evokes, one could also read the rider as penetrating the viewer with his own homoerotic gaze (instead of the heteropatriarchal phallus). Thus, the subjects’ gaze demands for viewers to critically analyze the masculinities at play when Timberlands, blackness, and Rococo meet.
Wiley’s persistent attention to rendering penetrating gazes and even re-directing gazes is, perhaps, best represented in the Down series. In it, Wiley’s appropriations are oil paintings and sculptures from the European Classical period to the Impressionist period. The Dead Christ in the Tomb (2007), Matador (2009), Femme piquée par un serpent (2008), Morpheus (2008), and from his World Stage Brazil series, Santos Dumont—The Father of Aviation II (2009), all redirect the gaze out toward the viewer rather than obscuring the gaze or turning it in toward the canvas as was the case in the prototypes. Given the contemporary social realities of many urban, young black men, downed (by gunshot) black men with eyes wide open seems to demand accountability from both the viewer and society at large. Depicting what, in many cases, is an honorable death—the death of Christ and bullfighters or angles in eternal sleep—the downed men whose eyes catch the eyes of the viewer break from scripted codes, but also seem to pose the question for the viewer: can you look beyond my color, bone, hair, and genitalia and imagine innocence for bodies that have been deemed unworthy of grace?
Perhaps unconvinced the message is clear enough, Wiley’s most recent productions function as a more explicit plea for grace. His 2015, fourteen-year retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum includes new works of stained glass, gold-embossed icon panels, and bronze busts. The new material—particularly the stained glass and icons—evokes Wiley’s 2006 Mugshot Study that, according to Wiley, made him begin to think differently about portraiture. An actual NYPD mugshot profile of a young black man that Wiley found on 125th St in Harlem when he was a resident at the Studio Museum inspired Mugshot Study. The paper included the young man’s name, address, arrest information, and physical description.
It compelled Wiley to juxtapose this image that he insists is a type of “portraiture” with that of the traditional eighteenth century style of portraiture. Within this juxtaposition he was attuned to how the position of one is controlled by those in power (mugshot), whereas the subject controls positioning in the other. The stained glass images work to humanize the vulnerability captured in the mug shot—vulnerability in this case being the criminalizing fact of black maleness. Wiley pushes his audience to reimagine a type of portraiture for young black men that is unimaginable—that of sainthood.
When entering the gallery, the six stained glass images immediately draw your eye. They are inlaid in a hexagonal structure, making both the artwork and architecture resemble a Gothic cathedral. Appropriating a Gothic style is apropos given Wiley’s mission to humanize those who have lost control of their own representation. While the Byzantine period showed little interest in human form and the underlying structure of the body, Gothic art broke from rules of classical art, embracing the imagination and producing realistic images of the complete human form, including facial expressions reflecting the inner self. In Saint Ursula and the Virgin Martyrs (2014), for example, Saint Ursula is replaced with a black man. He retains her golden halo and quiver, which is the culprit in her death, but he sheds her Renaissance regalia and, instead, is clothed in Timberlands, patterned shorts, and a clashing patterned jacket with black fur collar. He is surrounded by a handful of the 11,000 virgin handmaidens who were also martyred with Ursula. Unlike the downed portraits, the subject in this composite does not look demanding. His head is tilted to the left, and his left shoulder is slightly hitched up, giving off an air of indifference or even deference. Rather than penetrating and directing the viewer’s gaze, his eyes are obscured by shadow. We do, however, see his eyes and the eyes of some of the virgins, which is not the case in the prototype. Thus, visible eyes, even when not penetrating, still call upon the viewer to see into the soul.
Given the time period of production, one cannot help but wonder if the very explicit casting of black men as saints and martyrs is in response to the contemporary high profile police and civilian violence directed toward black men. Many of Wiley’s oil paintings have, in fact, been replicas of Christ and various saints and martyrs. Those portraits, however, often emphasized style and bravado even when vulnerably positioned against “rosy” backdrops. The stained glass images exude the entangling of resoluteness, weariness, and, perhaps, even a hint of “shade” thrown at viewers. The facial expressions and body language suggest, perhaps, that the black models simply are tired of the gaze, are tired of the fleeting nature of grace for black men.
Simone C. Drake is an assistant professor of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University. She is the author of Critical Appropriations: African American Women and the Construction of Transnational Identity (LSU Press) and her second book, When We Imagine Grace: Black Men and Subject Making will be published next year by the University of Chicago Press.