Passing/Posing: Kehinde Wiley Paintings

"Passing/Posing: Kehinde Wileys Painting"

At the Brooklyn Museum




      "Go," 2003

      Oil on canvas mounted on five panels.

      Brooklyn Museum, Mary Smith Dorward Fund

The Trash Collector

by Nicholas Powers



We are a thrown away people. Stolen centuries ago by the West, our ancestors built nation after nation, until they were no longer needed and thrown away. They wondered through the world they created finding no home. They picked up left over meat and made it a meal. They picked out barren lands and made communities. They picked up horns and drums from dead Civil War soldiers and made Jazz.


Black artists have inherited this legacy of recycling. We can see it continued in the work of Kehinde Wiley, a 27 year old painter, born and raised in South Central L.A. and whose work has received acclaim as a fusion of Hip-Hop and Classical European art. In a B.E.T interview Wiley said, "I remember being appalled that we had to go through the garbage of wealthy neighbors to pick out a shirt." Years later, he would again find what he needed in the trash. While walking in Harlem he saw a mug shot on the street. He picked it up and months later painted the man's image into a Renaissance background. It became the first portrait in his now famous series. It was also, in a sense, a continuation of pulling out a shirt from the garbage of his wealthy neighbors. Wiley found, out of the many Black lives thrown away by American white supremacy a single face and saved it.


Wiley is a new force in the art world. The 27 year-old Yale Graduate earned attention for his recent Passing/Posing series at the Brooklyn Museum and in May he will be part of a group exhibit titled Maximum Flavor at the Atlantic College of Art. Yet even if he is a new force in the art world the ideological needs of his audiences are old.


Wiley frames young Black men within a European tradition of Renaissance portraiture. The pleasure of his work is the pleasure of the slave narrative. It offers the viewer a spectacle of redemption, of embracing Black men who have been sanitized by saintliness. It is art that shares with the slave narrative the lack of risk for the reader or viewer because the moral ambiguity of the Black protagonist has been cleansed. Wiley said his art school professors expected him to make the great Negro statement. Even now, his closet is filled with paintings of ironic watermelons in the style of Magritte and de Chirico; it is his personal gallery of shame, of cliché's he once felt compelled to paint. In a NY Times Magazine interview he said, "They remind me of a point in my life that I felt absolutely desperate and lost and powerless. I don't want to romanticize that too much, but it's interesting to look at."


Yet the direction he has chosen still moves along the axis of race, except now ironic images of watermelons are replaced by iconic images of Black men floating in a White gaze. The Passing/Posing} series intends to ask the viewer why they are troubled by Black men being framed by European aesthetics, the tension being the same that elevated the Civil Rights Movement into the great moral event in our nation's history. Why do we feel awkward at seeing Black bodies integrating White space? Except here that space is not diners or water-fountains or bathrooms but the history of European art.  


Even though Wiley says he refused to make the great Negro Statement, his fame and fortune rides on the art world's need for one. The art world reflects the dreams and fears of liberal society in the United States, a sector whose ideology is integration but whose practice is political paternalism and economic gentrification. Wiley's art satisfies them because it excites guilt and relieves it in one viewing.


Black men are made safe with beauty. Although Wiley says he intends the female names and flowery patterns to critique the code of masculinity, he doesn't show how or why that code became necessary. We have art whose narrative tension is based on the fusion of high and low, yet the men are strangely unscarred, as if the evidence of oppression must be erased, which is part of the process of integration. In that, integration does not destroy power it seeks to join it. Which is why Wiley's art touches a nerve, he completes the mission of the Civil Rights Movement by not just merging with power in the present but by reaching back and becoming part of its past.


When Denzel Washington and Russell Simons buy his paintings, they are buying images of inheritance. The Talented Tenth is lining up to buy his portraits because Wiley offers them a dream of total integration, of the ghetto youth they once were or feel alienated from or responsible for now stand haloed by European aesthetics of power.


The anonymity of the Black men allows for projection. It helps the Black art collector to see the stereo-types they are trapped in as symbols of divinity and freedom and innocence. It allows the White art collector to purchase a new token of their liberalism. Such anonymity allows the figures to stand in for Wiley, for his ambition to pose in the same halls of power as the masters he criticizes. What troubles me, is not that Black men are seen in classical European frames but that the frames themselves are not challenged. The man alone, floating in the sky, untouched by age or doubt, untouched by the laws of nature or society is a replica of class hierarchy itself, of the one elevated above the many. The grandiose gestures, limbs positioned like antennae to receive divine signals, which means the human world is mute and silenced.


Wiley transforms thugs into saints but it does not achieve his goal of troubling the art world audience. In fact in he comforts them because whether Black men are seen in mug shots or Renaissance frames, whether they are the dark embodiment of sin or the sacred victims of a racist society, they are in either case, still not human. The tragedy of racism is the same as the tragedy of religion in that both allow their audiences to objectify the other.


In these paintings, Black men are missing the one thing that could free us from our need to redeem them. They are missing their humanity. If they had it, we could see it and ask how we can free ourselves from our store-bought self worth, how we can let go of our fear and loathing of them and instead, redeem ourselves. In Wiley's work brothers are transferred from one prism to another and in the end from one prison to another. Some see in his work an edgy fusion of high and low. I see Black men jailed in the sky, floating among gold sperm, Rococo design and religious patterns. They float out of reach of those of us who live with them on earth, those of us who love them not as thugs or saints but as men who mirror us because their confusion and fear and joy reminds us of our own.