Kehinde Wiley

is a photographer I came across while browsing through Strand.  Now, his book is on the “New” table so it’s not hard to miss – in that I was not being particularly astute for having come across it.

His book, Black Light, is really eye-catching for one.  

But, that’s not what is important.  Kehinde Wiley received his MFA from Yale (!) in 2001 and now resides in the greatest city of them all, New York, after deserting L.A. (understandable).  For this particular project, he recruited young men from Brooklyn in the Fulton Street Mall area to pose for his portraits.  He wanted young men, Black, Brown and Red to pose in his paintings in the most contemporary hip urban dress.  At some point, it was mentioned that he did not want to seem to off-putting to his prospective models so he dressed down (from a Yale sweatshirt and sandals?) to some current hip sneakers.  Adidas, I believe.  In the accompanying essay and according to his website, he sees himself as a “contemporary descendant” of such portraitists such as Gainsborough, Delacroix, Ingres, and Titian among others.  It goes on to say he has situated himself in an art historical portrait painting tradition.  Fine, albeit a little pretentious if you ask me to claim such accomplishment.  So, he is comparing himself to the great neoclassical and romantic artists (and Titian – High Renaissance!).  If we accept this, then I see what he’s doing.  By claiming such genealogy, not only is he claiming a history and creating one that is as full of grandeur and romanticism as any old European country, he elevates the image of the traditionally marginalized groups these same countries exploited for their excessive riches and leisure.  So, there’s a bit of irony there that keeps me warm and fuzzy at night.

However, as you flip through his book Black Light or scroll through his gallery collection on his website, sheer number is not going to change the message.  He keeps hitting the same note and it gets old after awhile.  Not to mention, his portraits are not as dynamic as some of the portraits of say, Jacques Louis David’s portraits of Napoleon:

Look at this.  Look at everything that is going on in the  background.  There’s a story there.  Each detail is  important.  The only associations one can draw  upon  from a Wiley portrait is the obvious physical  positioning  of the body and face, the lighting, and the lurid  background of fleur de lis like graphics that populate each  of his photographs.  Those are the only  similarities.  More  can be done with his portraits to ground them in an  equally grand space.  So, I hope that is the next step for  Wiley, or are we going to see more of the same?

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