In the catalog accompanying “The World Stage: Africa, Lagos~Dakar,” an exhibition of Kehinde Wiley’s paintings at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the artist holds forth on various aspects of his work—among them, his African heritage, the role of mimicry in art, being a twin, and themes of gender and postcolonialism. He lists as his peers Allen Ginsberg, Britney Spears, Fragonard, Versace and Kara Walker. He’s not crazy about Spike Lee or Titian, and is suspicious of Barack Obama—“his rabbit holes,” Wiley says, “are capable of losing structural integrity by virtue of their own weight.”
Which is to say: Let’s be be thankful that Mr. Wiley has found employment as a famous artist rather than as an addle-brained cultural theorist.
HIS MODELS ARE exclusively young men, typically in hip-hop garb, striking poses based on figures in paintings by Tiepolo, say, or David. They’re set against elaborate and vibrantly colored patterning derived from different cultures and eras—you’ll find Islam in Mr. Wiley’s art, and the Rococo.
Skillfully rendered and smartly conceived, the paintings mix and match historical periods for reasons both Pop (Peter Paul Rubens meets the Wu-Tang Clan) and political (Peter Paul Rubens, make room for the African diaspora).
To his credit, Mr. Wiley himself isn’t altogether sold on art as “a site of normalizing and redemption,” as the catalog puts it. His skepticism evinces a painter resistant to the clichés of art as “transgression,” as well as an African-American wary of pigeonholing, equivocal about the notion of “black art.”
All the same, Mr. Wiley is savvy to the arresting power of confrontational imagery. He’s kin to showmen like John Currin and Matthew Barney, though Mr. Wiley’s sociological foundation is graver than porn and Vaseline.
Mr. Wiley’s recent paintings are part of his “World Stage” series. Establishing studios in China, the first site where he set up shop, and then in Nigeria and Senegal, Mr. Wiley adopts aspects of regional culture. In China, he looked at Communist propaganda and adapted it to his own needs.
Something similar informs the African paintings: A number of them are based on public monuments that recall Soviet socialist realism. Taking into account the reproductions in the catalog, they are like most nationalist sculpture, stiff with symbolism.
NOTWITHSTANDING WHAT MUST have been jarring contrasts in environment and custom, Mr. Wiley seems pretty much untouched by his travels. His pictorial formula remains intact. Whether he’s in Africa, in China, or navigating 125th Street, Mr. Wiley is always himself. Motifs gleaned from the immediate surroundings—primarily, pattern and palette—are subsumed by his trademark style. Mr. Wiley doesn’t open himself up to disparate cultures—he merely Kehinde-izes them.
The stately men seen in The Wise Men Greeting Entry Into Lagos (2008) and Rubin Singleton (2008)— a spectacularly elaborate play of floral arabesques and a wonderfully garish camouflage jacket—hail from either Dakar or Lagos. (Mr. Wiley and his film crew look for “models” as they stroll down city streets.)
There’s an impressive and chilly finesse to Mr. Wiley’s realism. He doesn’t take pleasure in putting brush to canvas—it slides efficiently, but with no sense of urgency—but likeness is carefully delineated.
Elsewhere he’s coy: Benin Mother and Child (2008) pictures a young man holding a fan and basket; you think the painting is mislabeled until you find out that it’s based on a matriarchal sculpture.
But it figures—Mr. Wiley isn’t interested in his models for who they are as individuals, but what they can be as archetypes. Warholian anonymity, slick with calculation, is the point. It’s disconcerting how blithely Mr. Wiley denatures his subjects.
Only Ibrahima Sacko (2008) escapes the artist’s conceptualist straitjacket, and you can’t help but cheer on his puckishness. If anything, the artist’s work succeeds best as pure form—his expert riffs on figure and ground would’ve made Clement Greenberg smile.
But these disjointed amalgamations of specificity and artifice don’t quite know what they are, except that they’re by Kehinde Wiley. I wish he’d get out of the way and let the paintings fulfill their promise.
“The World Stage: Africa, Lagos~Dakar” is at the Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, until October 26. Mario Naves can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.