Friday, October 24, 2008

Kehinde Wiley at The National Portrait Gallery

by Claire Feng
Ice T, 8' x 6', 2005

When I began to paint several years ago, one of my professors said to me that a painter should never paint a person like a car body (meaning “no shining please!”). Well, there are a lot of shiny things in Kehinde Wiley’s portrait paintings: patterns, skin, accessories, frame… and he is being exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery!
(Here is more proof that one should always be wary of a professor’s doctrine.)

All these paintings are large-scale portraits of life-size or larger than life black men,, copying postures from old masters’ portrait paintings of 17th and 18th
centuries. Inside the gold frames, these figures are surrounded by decorative patterns (which sometimes run in front of the figure’s body). The colors are bright; the painting technique is smooth and glossy. All these paintings radiate splendor (what a triumph of the painting!).

My triumphal feeling is accompanied by a kind of frustration. These works are done in such a smooth and celebrating way (which reminds me the portraits of our great leaders in China, one of them is always hung at the gate of the Tian An Men Square) that they are far from the old masters’ way of painting. I just didn’t get the joy of looking at a Van Dyck or a Frans Hals, even though the figure is exactly taking the same posture. Ok, that’s too personal. Am I forgetting that we are in the 21th century? And it’s a social work reflecting hip-hop culture? And it’s about appropriating the traditional portrait language and about criticizing it? Higher level of reading please!

After all, they are well done paintings, and more, done from digital photographs after manipulations in Photoshop (I know it from a Kehinde Wiley’s interview). I don’t know why but that comforts me… But wait, he has found the right subject(s): black American identity, the social function of art, the criticizing of something, and even the theme of Masculinity if we search a little bit more! My comfort was short.

Big Daddy Kane, 6' x 8', 2005

I think the most interesting part of his work is that all these subjects are explored (or more precisely, read by the viewer) in an uncommon way. He makes the traditional portraiture language, which was a privilege limited to wealthy men, a democratic right shared by urban black men. (I guess this democracy remains symbolic as still only wealthy people can afford his paintings.) My last reflection is, “should a portrait painting always fulfill a social function?” Kehinde Wiley obviously answers the question, but in front of his paintings I am in front of a symbol, an archetype, not a human being as an individual. They are figures, not people.

Paintings of Kehinde Wiley from the exhibition of “Recognize!” Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture in the National Portrait Gallery (Feb. 8 – Oct. 26, 2008)(Kehinde Wiley's website)

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