“Passing/Posing: Kehinde Wiley Paintings” at the Brooklyn Museum, is the first museum exhibition for this talented artist, who combines art history with a contemporary vernacular idiom. The show of about twenty works celebrates the museum’s acquisition of five of the nine components of Wiley’s (b. 1977) suite Passing/Posing (2003). Four large-scale single-figure paintings complement a twenty-five-foot by ten-foot ceiling decoration of tumbling break-dancers. The dancers are viewed with bravura foreshortening that testifies to Wiley’s admiration for Tiepolo. The four surrounding compositions have lunette-shaped tops, mimicking panels in a traditional European altarpiece. Wylie conflates historical formulas—Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo—with hip-hop fashion elements and finds his own complex style. The title Passing/Posing emphasizes the everyday theatricality of Black youth culture, with its fetishization of personal style. Wiley’s favorite genre is the apotheosis, which he staffs with models from Harlem neighborhoods, still dressed in their urban street gear. The figure in Assumption, a young man in jeans and an orange sweatshirt, takes on the body language of the Virgin Mary being lifted to heaven, an image of rhetorical piety. An elaborate filigree of gold arabesques, studded with pink roses, flattens the image and works against illusionistic space. Two of the most immediately striking elements of Wiley’s idiom are his vivid color and his playful gender-bending. A young man dressed in a puffy jacket impersonates Female Prophet, Deborah, emerging from a heavenly mandorla. While no one would find this image decorous, it has wit, power and—especially in the vaguely Tibetan gilded cloud patterns—beauty.
While juxtapositions of such disparate visual vocabularies can be jarring, Wiley points out unexpected similarities in the cultivation of style across the centuries: “I use French Rococo influences, with its garishness and vulgarity, to complement the flashy attire and display of ‘material consumption’ evident in hip-hop culture.” By using young men, posed in attitudes more familiar in icons of feminine virtue, Wiley also raises questions about gender-image. Immaculate Conception presents the young Black male rising through the clouds against a wallpaper-flat background of stars. The satire implicit in this appropriation of history painting in full triumphal mode is undeniable, but Wiley clearly admires the old masters, and these images have an incongruous, tongue-in-cheek grace. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Wiley moved to New York City in 2001 to participate in the Artist-in-Residence Program at the Studio Museum in Harlem. He holds a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA from Yale University. His taste is eclectic; Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable were early heroes, and he found the in situ masterpieces of Venice a revelation. Wiley describes his approach as “interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit.” He sees Western painting as “a craft that has evolved into a vocabulary of signs that tells one that the subject is important.” His levitating figures have the immediacy of in-the-moment stereotypes, but they are simultaneously entering the transmundane continuum of art history. Through the course of the twentieth century, many African-American artists rejected abstraction and continued working in a figurative idiom, updating history and genre painting in a search for vehicles to address issues of racial identity: Romare Bearden’s jazz-inflected collages and Jacob Lawrence’s modernist serial narratives are obvious examples. Wiley’s exuberant pastiches suggest the vitality of that tradition in the new century. A full-color publication, consisting of a portfolio of large-format prints with text, accompanies the exhibition. “Passing/Posing” is on view October 8, 2004–February 5, 2005 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York 11238. Telephone (718) 638-5000. On the web at www.brooklynmuseum.org.