My daughter and I went to see Kehinde Wiley’s show at the Brooklyn Museum in May.
When he was a newly minted MFA, working for The Studio Museum in Harlem, he conducted an after-school bookmaking workshop for students and their parents/caregivers at my daughter’s elementary school. We enjoyed it, and remembered him, and when a positive review of his paintings appeared in the newspaper a few years later, we were pleasantly surprised.
Wiley is known for his huge paintings that riff on the work of European Old masters by placing African-Americans in street clothes in a similar setting. There were plenty of these in the show, and they are impressive.
But the first paintings we encountered were small luminous reflections on Icons–work we hadn’t seen before.
The artist also works in stained glass and sculpture, continuing the theme of commenting on the classical canon of Art History while using contemporary people of color as models.
One criticism leveled at Kehinde Wiley in reviews of his show at the Brooklyn Museum was that he uses assistants to paint his backgrounds. Considering the fact that the “classic” painters he’s riffing on in his work did then same thing, and then just the sheer size of many of the paintings…well, I disagree. It’s only recently in history that the cult of the individual artist as a god-like figure has appeared. The identity of much of the world’s most beautiful and moving artistic creations is either unknown, or known to be collaborative in origin, even when attributed to a single artist.
The other criticism I’ve heard frequently is that Wiley keeps repeating himself. Yes and no. I was surprised by much of what I saw, at both the variety and the visible changes. The work is continuous, but also evolving.
And if you’ve stayed with me this long, you may want to know: yes, I did save the book from that workshop.
Here are some of the references for Kehinde Wiley’s work pictured above: