Celebrating male beauty
by Sura Wood
In 2011, Kehinde Wiley, an African-American artist exploring diasporas, ethnic hybrids, identity and gender, trolled Israel's discos, malls, bars and sporting events seeking black alpha males, 18-25 years of age, from diverse backgrounds – Ethiopian Jews, as well as Jewish and Arab Israelis – who were steeped in hip hop culture. They became the subjects of the 18 visually striking portraits now on display in Kehinde Wiley/The World Stage: Israel, a new exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Photo: Kwaku Alston, courtesy of Kehinde Wiley Studio
Wiley, who was born in South Central LA and bitten by the art bug there, attended San Francisco Art Institute before getting his MFA from Yale. A voracious global traveler, he's familiar with the world stage, which is the name he gave to a series that germinated in Harlem, where he encountered guerrilla street-fashion and male bravado – think T-shirts with logos, and butt-crack-revealing baggy jeans. His journeys have since taken him far and wide to Brazil, India, China, Senegal, Nigeria and other countries he deigns part of the 21st-century conversation. He has set up studios in Brooklyn and Beijing, and has plans for outposts in Senegal and the Caribbean.
A moment to digress: Wiley is versed in the art of market-speak, an aptitude displayed in a short video at the entry to the exhibit. At 35, his paintings are in the collections of over 40 museums, including the Metropolitan in New York, LACMA and the Hammer in L.A; this is no small feat and a tribute to his savvy. But it would be wise not to conflate his explanations of what he's trying to do in his art with what's actually on the gallery walls. In the end, intention and promotion are irrelevant; at least one would hope so. The slightly ponderous quotations from the artist scattered throughout the show, such as: "I wanted to mine where the world is right now," don't add to the experience of the work, which celebrates male beauty.
Wiley, who's gay, gives forceful presence to handsome, urban black and brown men who get far less representation in paintings hanging in museums than their white counterparts. His models, who chose their own clothing, and in some instances struck poses selected from art-history texts, are set against eye-popping, multi-colored backgrounds with intricate patterns drawn from decorative tapestries and Judaic motifs one might find in Middle Eastern street bazaars. The paintings are placed in ornate hand-carved wooden frames, topped by text and mini sculptures of the 10 Commandments, the Lions of Judah, and in some cases, Rodney King's plaintive query: "Can't we all get along?" The profusion of design elements is so busy that the paintings, when taken collectively in the context of an exhibition, induce a sugar headache.
This particular body of work is based on traditional 18th- and 19th-century European portraiture of the landed gentry, but the artist gave the enterprise a significant twist and shout by adding the seasoning of contemporary youth and hip hop and an unmistakable homoerotic subtext to form a clash of culture, class, racial politics, emigration, religion, sex and art-historical references. All of this is pulled off with technical finesse, but to what end isn't clear. One of the text panels asks, "Who are these men?" It's a valid question because we learn next to nothing about them beyond their attractive surfaces and distinguishing physical characteristics.
Kalkidan Mashasha, a well-known musician/rapper whom the artist befriended, and who's the subject of four works here, has a complex history that's not communicated by the portrait. An Ethiopian Jew whose family may have emigrated to Israel during Israeli-sponsored airlifts in the 1990s, he was given a Jewish name when he arrived, and had a tough time fitting into his adopted country, which he found repressive, or formulating an identity, until he was liberated by music. In one painting, he's in military uniform and surrounded by a landscape incorporating the Mosque of Omar, a sacred Islamic site. The imagery is taken from a lithograph of the Holy Land made by the Scottish artist David Roberts in 1839.
Wiley's approach bears some resemblance to that of Deborah Oropallo, whose 2007 series Guise superimposed digitally manipulated images of women in scanty costumes onto formal portraits of prestigious 17th- and 19th-century men. Both artists are interested in desire, objectification, fantasy, and above all, power. But, while Oropallo's focus is feminine constructs in a male-dominated society, Wiley's preoccupation is the perception of black masculinity, most commonly defined by sports, anti-social behavior and hypersexuality, and how these men adapt to a hostile environment. "By and large, hip-hop is about survival," Wiley states, but it's also notoriously misogynist and homophobic, negative aspects of the phenomenon he doesn't address.
He gives his figures gravitas they may not have in other areas of their lives, and preserves it for posterity; what he fails to deliver is dimension. (Through May 27.)