Art Catch: Kehinde Wiley and Barkley L. Hendricks

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11/18/2008 2:00 PM |

The L‘s Patricia Milder tells you which art exhibits and dance shows are worth visually stalking.

At a time when art sales are way down, Kehinde Wiley’s "Down" is made up of massive 25-foot portraits priced around $300,000.00 each, and his dealers at Deitch Projects are having no trouble selling them. Something about his new oil paintings compels an impulsive "I want it," perhaps because of their epic proportions and lush, decorative color and patterns. But at the heart of Wiley’s highly justified success is more likely the fact that these could-be murals have an emotional and political charge that warrants their large size, and they’re just risqué enough to look fresh, but stay personal.

Wiley is known for his portraits of young, modern Black men with low key hip-hop style, who he inserts into classic art historical scenes, for the most part in the pose of the hero. In the past he’s painted young men in Brooklyn and Africa, as well as rappers and celebrities, dead and alive. You probably saw his colorful, detailed, remake of Jacques-Louise David’s Napoleon in the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum when you visited the Takashi Murakami show this summer (or maybe you visited the Kehinde Wiley show there in 2005). The general tactic seems too obvious at first – inserting the politicized black male body into a role of power, and into an art history from which he was excluded – and if Wiley was doing a basic subversive insert, it would be.

But this new series, "Down," though still drawing from historical modes
of composition, takes the discussion broader to a broader — and, I think, more
brave and powerfully naked place — where dying and death intersects with
religion, sexuality and gender roles. Wiley’s work transcends the
overarching and central Black male-ness of its subjects, or it takes
the complication of that role to the next level of human concern.
Namely, painting the male in a female pose without negatively
expressing feminization or fulfilling expected or visually clichéd gay
imagery, as well as an overarching theme that places repose on equal
ground with death. Larger than life, physically powerful men are
hyper-sexualized, hyper-feminized, depicted as Jesus, shown defeated,
dying, face down, or with a "come hither" gaze. Again, these paintings
are huge (average 10′ X 25′): it’s a lot to take in.

Wiley cites fellow Yale alumni Barkley L. Hendricks as an influence and
the easy comparison between the two reveals a straightforward 20th
century American historical lineage. Hendricks painted Black male (and
notably, also female) swagger and fashion starting in the 1960s and
70s. His large full body portraits, now on view at the Studio Museum in
Harlem in a retrospective called "The Birth of Cool," seem subdued
compared to Wiley’s but that has everything to do with the difference
between 1970 and 2008. Misc. Tyrone (1976), which portrays a denim
overalls wearing man in a theatrical fashion model-esque pose against a
pink background, stops just short of conveying indiscreet gender
bending allure.

The nude Brilliantly Endowed (self portrait) (1977), named after
Times critic Hilton Kramer called Hendricks a "brilliantly endowed
painter," was shocking for audiences when it was painted and it still
packs a bit of provocation. But not much – the mildly aggressive image
is softened by the title’s playful tease and the sunglasses, afro, gold
jewelry and striped tube socks on the subject/painter, who remains at
the height of 1970s cool and fashion even while naked. The choice of
what is still an uncommon subject for the nude, like Wiley’s new
approach to the classically female repose, is balanced and grounded
with Western art history. Inspirations from Caravaggio and Rembrandt
give Hendricks’ work weight without contrivance. In the more recent
Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen…(2002) Hendricks uses gold background and the
classical Christian religious imagery of a halo and a crown of thorns
in collision with rock star confidence and sexuality in his portrait of
Fela Kuti. Under the portrait, which hangs as an altarpiece, are 17
pairs of high heels that are laid out, it seems, in offering.

I’m not crazy about the high heels, or Hendricks’ landscapes, which are
also on view at the Studio Museum. It’s the portraits and their
backgrounds that matter. For Hendricks it’s the bright, solid reds,
oranges, and greens that play off matching colors in his subject’s
immaculate outfits, and in Wiley’s works the seasonal, stylized floral
patterns are practically alive, both encircling and climbing into his
sitter’s space. It’s the removal from reality’s backdrop, in both
cases, that lets us see the individual and his inherent contradictions
more clearly.

Kehinde Wiley and Barkley L. Hendricks
Wiley at Deitch Projects, 18 Wooster St, through December 20
Hendricks at The Studio Museum, 144 W. 125th St, through March 15

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