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"Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic"

  • Art, Painting
  • 2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

As this midcareer survey demonstrates, Kehinde Wiley is a certified big deal in the art world, so I wouldn’t expect my persistently mixed feelings about his efforts to change anyone’s mind about them. By the same token, this show hasn’t changed mine.

His art possesses obvious appeal. Chockablock with eye-popping colors and patterns, Wiley’s paintings, sculptures and forays into stained glass are the very definition of high concept, marrying Old Masters–ish technique with commanding portrait subjects. His images of young women and men (mostly men) of color convey the uplifting argument that they’re just as worthy of representation as potentates of yore. Who could argue with that?

The work, however, is an illustration of an idea instead of the embodiment of one. Wiley told Time Out New York that he’s in the “gorgeous-picture business,” but gorgeous isn’t the same as moving. Though he culls his models from the street, he seems less interested in their character than in their runway-ready looks. More than anything, his style resembles a kind of hip-hop Social Realism with heroic hotties instead of workers.

Wiley walks a tightrope between elite and popular tastes. He’s bankrolled by rich collectors, whom he has described as the sort of people who clutch their pearls at the sight of a black person and cross the street. That they do, though Wiley isn’t wrong to believe he can leverage their guilt for the laudable aim of redressing racial injustice.

The problem is that while Wiley has given his show a spirited title, his art can only inspire progress, not foment it. Yet he’s too enthralled by his own ability to dazzle to produce anything other than overdone, if eye-catching, tableaux. This show will likely delight audiences, but in the end, it represents another case of entertainment distracting us from the hard work of change.—Howard Halle


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