Two gallery spaces and one artist. Kehinde Wiley boasts new works on display at the Stephen Friedman London gallery. A three-screen video and nine paintings make up the exhibition entitled In Search of the Miraculous.
Los Angeles-born painter Wiley, bares his roots in different parts of the world. His influential studios based in Brooklyn, Beijing, and Dakar, greatly impact his artistic process by crossing his own cultural borders.
Working predominantly in multi-coloured patterns and often placing black individuals in the foreground in everyday clothing, Wiley commonly adopts an urban body language opposed to romanticism.
The painter chooses his models from the streets, firstly when he started in Harlem and again later as he grew on an international scale. The effect is reminiscent of a modern collage, forcing viewers to refine their vision and voice their opinions.
Wiley has recently been appointed the considerable task of portraying the former US president. Renowned for borrowing the imperial style of classical masters such as Peter Paul Rubens or Jacques Louis David, and melding his African origins into the final renderings, he is also responsible for Michael Jackson’s equestrian portrait and his interpretation of Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps. The portrayal of Obama is therefore highly anticipated.
A three-screen video is looped in one of the rooms of the gallery. Actress CCH Pounder lends her voice to the narration and reads from French philosopher Michel Foucault and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s books. They respectively address the role of madness in Western society and the trauma of colonisation.
Words such as insanity, derangement, reason, uncertainty of fate, and oppression resonate within the small room where viewers are invited to sit. The voice over accompanies the images of black men who are filmed at times swimming and at others, staring at the camera.
Although the latter evolve as a group when they are captured alone, the intensity of their stares reveals an underlying sentiment of solitude. The slow paced, monotonous timber of the voice-over echoes in the silenced room where the film is projected, acting as a substitute for the dwelling thoughts within each individual. Both the film and the paintings are in a virtual relationship with one another therefore this feeling of loneliness further transcends the paintings located across the street in the gallery’s second location.
In this new series of paintings, Wiley introduces a new setting: that of the sea, with its plural implications whether political, geographical, social or simply evocative of poetry and infinity. Haitian men are represented in action or immobile but always in relation to the sea. These are not professional models. Wiley has included locals in the process of his work whose names are mentioned in each painting’s title. They are depicted at sea, braving storms in precarious vessels or standing defiantly, facing the water.
As per Wiley’s previous works, nothing is enhanced; black men appear modern, standing out from the background in sharp and vibrant colours.
The artist’s inspiration stems from classic seascape pieces belonging to greats such as Turner, Homer, and Bosch. Wiley does not appropriate the paintings. In fact, none of them are identifiable to the originals. He rather constructs a completely new style while inscribing himself in the lineage of master painters.
As a whole, the exhibition touches several sensitive subjects. Aware of the representation of black men at sea might call to mind either slavery or refugee escape to some viewers, Wiley confirms this contingency in a New York Times article: “Others might see maritime painting as a really wonderful way of looking at gentlemen’s leisure, or a certain aspect of Western ingenuity and know-how … We all look at the same object in different ways.” Therefore, whatever each person facing the art catches, observes, reflects on, and perhaps converses about, is subjective. He seems to be in accordance with the disparity of opinions which can emerge from his work.
Wiley expresses emotions which are palpable, whether while watching the film or contemplating the paintings. He effortlessly shares the inner turmoil, loneliness, and bravery of these men.
Although the theme of the sea is a new addition to the artist’s repertoire, the aim to historically question the absence of black individuals in art, remains. Wiley rightfully imposes his vision on contemporary art, calling out its absences and blind spots.
In Search Of The Miraculous: Kehinde Wiley at Stephen Friedman gallery (24 November 2017 – 27 January 2018)