By repopulating art-historical imagery with young black men, Kehinde Wiley has been infusing histrionic poses from the past with an edgy street dynamism for almost a decade now. The result of his conceptual project has been a kind of hip-hop baroque, where familiar and gaudy signposts of contemporary culture disrupt the social and political hierarchy inherent in much traditional portrait painting. And while he may fall short of inventing new icons, Wiley has certainly skewed the visual paradigms in which young African-American men play marginalized and often menacing roles.
For â??Down,â?ť his latest show at Deitch Projects, eight large-scale canvases easily evoked the grandeur of European masterpieces. Using Holbeinâ??s The Dead Christ in the Tomb as a jumping-off point, Wiley navigates through the vocabulary of the warrior in repose, thereafter allowing his models (as is his usual practice) to choose specific artworks to reenact. The poses here are more vulnerable than the puffed-up stances with which the young artist established his reputation.
Wiley is most successful when depicting in oil the vibrant contemporary street wear of his models with a painstaking skill that borders on the fetishistic. The bright orange hoodie in The Virgin Martyr of St. Cecilia (all works 2008) is a playful substitute for Stefano Madernoâ??s original marble shroud. The elongated end of a yellow belt dangles suggestively at the figureâ??s crotch and is echoed in the loose laces of his Nikes. These elements of style help refine the dichotomy between this evocative masculine image and its very feminine source.
In Morpheus, which draws on a Jean-Antoine Houdon sculpture, the sitterâ??s gaze is both seductive and mischievous. All the accoutrements of hip-hop are on full display: baseball cap askew, bling around his neck, sagging jeans that reveal patterned folds of boxer shorts and the most delicate hint of skin. Ironically, accessories like these feel rather naturalistic in contrast to the elaborate floral backgrounds that seem to be trying to break loose from their fussy compositional positions.
Although his handling of paint can be slightly flat, Wiley is still able to imbue his figuresâ?? flesh with an almost religious glow. Yet, however imperial the pictorial setup may be, the eroticism inherent to figures in repose flirts with the farcicalâ??just as the hyperbole of hip-hop often borders on the ridiculous. While the young men in these paintings seem more than comfortable in their own skin, it should be interesting to see how their self-images will evolve in the age of Obama. Likewise, Wileyâ??s depiction of young African-Americans is approaching a crossroads, as the very picture of black power in America moves from music-video fantasy to a daily televised reality.