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 â 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, Amenâ¦(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