Kehinde Wiley’s Fetching New Paintings

Kehinde Wiley's "Down" exhibit

I don’t know why Wiley is suddenly making good paintings but he is. I saw my first exhibition of Wiley paintings back in April at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art as part of “Recognize: Hip Hop & Contemporary Portraiture” and I was severely disappointed. I wasn’t the only one…Thinking About Art called Wiley a “hack” and pointed out that “Wiley (or his assistants)…can’t paint worth a shizzle.”

Before then I admired the visual impact of Wiley’s art when I saw it on the printed page or on screen. Hell, I even appreciated the few I had seen though I always thought there was something odd about their foreshortening and representation of hands…”maybe this is a bad one” I remember thinking once.

At the Smithsonian show I deduced that his oddities were probably the lack of artistic talent. Maybe his studio is chock full of bad assistants but that’s not my problem as a viewer, a critic or a blogger.

But his latest show at Deitch, entitled “Down” is different. His latest works are interesting and monumental. They directly reference the history of Western painting (which he oftens does but usually with less refinement), including “Dead Christ in the Tomb” by Hans Holbein the Younger (pictured below), which is one of the most controversial paintings in Western art history for its stark depiction of Christ without mourners. This painting was one of the sources of theorist Julia Kristeva discussions of the abject. Kristeva write’s in Psychoanalysis & Modernity that: “…[this] painting…confronts the threat to what Nietzsche called the ‘highest ideal’ by discovering a change in the meaning of God at the threshold of secular modernity.” Wiley somehow reveals the absurdity in this painting by evoking a Victorian love of ornament and drapery. These painting are simultaneously tragic and affected but also maintain subtlety that lures you in.

Gone is Wiley’s pop aesthetics, present are ideas that are clear and refined. I am curious how these will develop…and thankfully the painting is no longer bad…what happened, did he fire the old assistants?

Kehinde Wiley's "Down" exhibit

See my complete photos from the show here.

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