Last week I attended a show at the Sean Kelly Gallery, showcasing the work of Kehinde Wiley.
I have to say first thing that I was amazed at the size of the huge paintings in the main room. Even in the empty gallery, I actually did not notice the beheading image until I walked into the room it was in. It is certainly interesting to consider the layout of the show as this image was huge and in the very center of the whole show. When I saw it, I kind of had an “wow” kind of moment. I was interested in the head, which is a white woman’s head, but it was obviously vital to notice the head was that of a white woman. I wasn’t sure if the potential meaning behind such a strong visual oversimplifies the ordeal faced in the art world. He suggesting a new era of the art world.
One of the most fascinating things I found was this statement he made in the press release: “The phrase ‘an economy of grace’ speaks directly to the ways in which we manufacture and value grace and honor, the people that we choose to bestow that honor upon, and the ways in which grace is at once an ideal that we strive for and something that is considered to be a natural human right.
In relation to the Tisch Givenchy fashion “manufactured specifically for the show,” dresses that, in today’s society, are undeniably linked to notions of grace and honor. It is interesting to see how he utilizes the name and the association of couture, custom and hand made. The name of Givenchy. In the past, the upper class and those well respected in society often had special clothes made for their “society” portrait. It makes me think the work is quite sarcastic to the way society views grace and honor. We place these women in these fancy dresses and paint them in huge time-consuming paintings. At times, we see a tattoo, or nail art, heavy makeup or piercings peaking out from behind the, for lack of a better word, façade of the woman. Wiley seems to present the images, complex with detail, similar to the complexity of the subject matter. Amongst the busy floral backgrounds, we really have to look to see the details, often stereotypical. It begs one to reconsider and rethink their understanding of the generally stereotyped black woman. It begs one to realize it is never that simple. The women are not simple and as such, neither is the work.
Beyond utilizing fashion in the name of grace and honor, we can clearly see how much time and effort goes into each work. With the huge paintings in the back, we are made small in relation. Wiley confronts us literally to think about the subject matter. They are both grand in nature and well, quite frankly, over the top. For such an effort, I, as most people will assume, the women in the paintings are likely to have very interesting lives or something to say. I have a feeling this work is not over yet. I think the documentary will reveal some unexpected things. I think it is a work that reveals itself slowly. We view it, we go home we think and think. Eventually the documentary will come out, and many of our thoughts will change or be confirmed.
In terms of the Santigold, I think it is his continuation in many ways. He takes it over the top with the economy of grace work, filling it with stereotypes of both beauty and black women. Wiley continued with these kind of grand collaborations of her cover too, working with Patrick McMullan and Rosson Crow. He is continuing the history, all while reconciling the past.
Wiley has taken an art form we all unfortunately associate with white people, and he has captured it to be all his own. His work really extends beyond the conventional society portrait. In the portraits of these women, we see a portrait of the world. We are asked to reconsider the very nature of his portrayal.