By now it’s well-documented that many of the recent generation of visual artists who have attained prominence quickly have been able to do so because of the advantages of holding an MFA. Not only does it adorn a résumé with an aura of prestige, it also provides a ready backlog of art historical references and critical methods. But MFA-ism isn’t necessarily bad, especially when an artist can successfully manipulate the language of contemporary art to create a dialogue encompassing present and past, style and substance. Yale MFA graduate Kehinde Wiley’s recent show at Deitch Projects—his first solo—employed a vast range of signifiers to restructure dialogue about the contemporary urban black man. While some signs felt forced, Faux Real still managed to project imagination, grace, and of course, wit.
Faux Real is the most recent in a string of shows by young black male artists transforming (white) art historical references to address contemporary black identity. Four paintings in the show depict lone men floating within modulated color fields. Clinging to the surface of the canvases is Wiley’s signature rococo patterning—the fleur-de-lis in silver and gold, lushly out-of-control vines, excessively gaudy halos. A huge ceiling mural with young black men floating sublimely through a gorgeously blue sky hovers over the work in the gallery below. Then, as a weird reminder of Wiley’s already obvious influences, gilded candelabras preside imperiously in the center of the gallery floor. The models for his paintings are young men from Harlem, where Wiley lives, where he worked as an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2002, and where contemporary black styles and trends begin and end. Like Richard Diebenkorn or Alex Katz, Wiley’s paintings glorify the banal character, the everyday human, engaged with nothing in particular. But, like Robert Longo, his characters are posed dramatically, although initially it’s impossible to tell whether it’s just for effect or if they’re captured in motion. In actuality, the models’ poses are meant to mimic those from Italian Renaissance paintings. The men of Faux Real feel exactly that, as real as painted contemporary man can, fully decked out in football jerseys, puffy jackets, hoodies, baggy jeans, and Nike hightops.
The marriage of Rococo, Renaissance, and Baroque styles for these streetwise portraits is a nice touch. Secular portraiture in Western Europe was born, popularized, and fetishized in those eras. To sit for a painter projected an image of privilege, success, and most importantly, a place among the social and economic upper crust. The projection of image in contemporary urban black centers like Harlem is no less self-conscious, and Wiley’s work refuses easy interpretation as either critique or glorification. The success of this show lies in Wiley’s sly employment of a multiplicity of signs. Like a Prada shirt or a trucker hat, a Terrell Davis jersey or a Cincinnati Reds hat worn backwards signify something—a belonging to a social group or class, a means of “fitting in,” a self-consciousness. Wiley’s portraits feel separate from portraiture as a genre because, unlike portraits from 500 years ago or John Currin’s right now, his models epitomize normalcy. And that’s what makes the next layer of signs, the ornamentation Wiley paints to further decorate his portraits, feel less like ostentatious decoration, and more like a necessary element of his visual language. The ornamentation ranges from ugly to sublime, an accessory that is sometimes handsome, sometimes distractingly garish. But it always serves as a vehicle for displacement. Wiley’s 125th street kids are suddenly sainted or aligned with French ancients: modern hip-hop culture juxtaposed with the grandiosity of European painting history.
Jeff Sonhouse’s show at Jack Tilton Gallery in late 2002 played on a similar interaction with Western art history, but using more updated signifiers. Sonhouse also paints portraits of black men, although their faces are obscured behind haunting masks or disguises. While their eyes, noses, and mouths show through, the rest of their faces are hidden, usually in gaudy or spectacular fashion. Are these convicts, circus entertainers, noir fantasy characters, bank robbers? Sonhouse sometimes constructs an afro for his characters out of matches, then sets the matches afire, leaving the scorched canvas to show plainly through. This Lucio Fontana-like act of destruction and violence toward his own canvas feels like a stark middle finger to anyone trying to decide which type of felon Sonhouse’s characters are.
Atlanta-based Kojo Griffin, who showed several monotype prints drawn on in crayon in a group show at Cheryl Pelavin Fine Arts, is another young black artist making figurative work that deals with identity. His characters aren’t black per se—they’re animals with human bodies, engaging in the urban brand of violence, anger, hate, humiliation, and uncontrollable urges that penetrate all cities. Typical interactions in Griffin’s work: an arrogant fox holding a football under his arm and his laughing sidekick (a chicken) mock an overweight elephant, who slumps away, hands deep in pockets; a mule-man looks over his shoulder at a sexy chicken-woman in a short skirt, while his girlfriend obliviously coos at their baby, still holding the mule-man’s hand. There’s a strong streak of Guston’s absurdity here, and the fact that Griffin’s characters are half-animal makes the terror of harassment feel even more poignant.
While Wiley’s work is clearly more peaceful than either Sonhouse’s or Griffin’s, all three of these young black artists are directly addressing black identity, as well as the perception of black identity from the outside. But instead of making work charged by stark anger or id-driven self-indulgence, Wiley, Sonhouse, and Griffin all make elegant use of systems of signs referencing white art history in styles that feel neither half-baked nor derivative. In Wiley’s case, it’s true that the candelabras felt a little silly and the models’ mimicking poses from Titian and Tiepolo paintings border on reference overkill. But Faux Real was certainly no flop. The equation of contemporary black culture’s materialism and preoccupation with image to a similar old European value is intelligent and sociologically fascinating. Wiley, Sonhouse, and Griffin aren’t part of any cohesive movement, but their similarities in both subject matter and execution feel like more than just a coincidence—a reminder, perhaps, that the notion that American society has transcended race typing is indeed, false reality.