Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
Kehinde Wiley’s Fashions
Kehinde Wiley. Alios Itzhak and Mizrah Ukraine, 2011. Detail. Courtesy of The Jewish Museum.

Kehinde Wiley. Alios Itzhak and Mizrah Ukraine, 2011. Detail. Courtesy of The Jewish Museum.

From Carrie Bradshaw’s “fashion road kill” on the TV series Sex and the City to last week’s incident in the Bronx, when a teenager was brutally beaten for his sunglasses and sneakers, the message is clear: fashion kills. Whether responsible for the ramshackle of many a starlet’s celebrity or the sudden halt of someone’s life, fashion has power. Dress is power. Who can forget the 1989 strangling of 15-year old Michael E. Thomas from Anne Arundel County, Md.? His Michael Jordan sneakers cost him his life.

Dress, body adornment, and body placement are central in Kehinde Wiley’s work. His paintings, most of them large scale, are known for their vivid colors, excessively elaborate decorative backgrounds, and the “ghetto dress” of the portrait sitters. Wiley, whose newest work is currently on view at the Jewish Museum in New York, has been developing his conceptual approach to portrait painting for a little over ten years. The painter admits to being intrigued by the “über-decadence of power, wealth, fashion, fetishes” in which well-paid hip-hop stars could indulge and by the fashion that could become a life-and-death struggle.” Wiley refined his technique in depicting abstracted decoration, expanded the gamut of street models he chooses to depict, and matured as the head painter of his own studio. It is at his studio where his collaboration with the artists who work with him takes place and it is that very process that allows him to innovate his method and painting technique.

In his interviews, Wiley insists on explaining his technical processes and how they have developed with time. What he used to do on his own, for example take pictures of historical paintings that he uses as referents or of decorative elements that he then enlarges and incorporates in his work, digitally alter these photographs and subsequently transfer them on to the canvas, are all steps that he now assigns to his studio. The final choices are his and he is also responsible for the choice of colors as well as the act of painting. But he makes sure to clarify that while he is very selective when he casts street models based on the character they project in their own “dress,” the combinations we see in his work are fictitious. Wiley depicts his subjects in clothes that he has also chosen for them. The quality he sees in them initially is highlighted through this artificial juxtaposition of personality and armature, of the innate and the adopted, of that which the portrait sitter projects against what the viewer projects on to him.

The exhibit at the Jewish Museum is a continuation of Wiley’s work. This is a new chapter in which the artist explores the global diaspora. “The World Stage: Israel” consists of Wiley’s depiction of men of diverse religions and ethnicities living in Israel. They were all photographed and then depicted superimposed on to decorative backgrounds that are based on Jewish ceremonial art. The majority of the paintings on view depict decorations derived from a selection of textiles and paper cuts chosen by Wiley from The Jewish Museum’s collection.

Wiley, who grew up in an underprivileged neighborhood in Los Angeles, was encouraged early on to visit art museums frequently. He fell in love with British portraiture that he discovered at The Huntington Library and as an extension with all fashions and decorative elements of the 18th century. His ease with history is evident in the most poignant referents he chooses for his own work today. His intellectual curiosity was further encouraged during his years at Yale’s School of Art, where he received his MFA. This particular group of paintings clearly illustrates Wiley’s elaborate conceptual approach to painting, his vocabulary that is steeped in history, and his technique that keeps evolving. Accusing him of excluding women from his work, as some critics have done, is narrow-minded. He is the storyteller and his stories are better told with men as the main character. Wiley’s narrative explores men’s relationship to their own identity and the means through which they express it. Through Wiley’s work we learn that fashion may kill at times but it also informs, connects, and even subverts our own beliefs. The question for Wiley at this point is whether he will continue down the same path, expanding geographically, or whether it is time for him to develop a new narrative. But before he does, we can all enjoy his work and study his fashions.

© Thomaï Serdari