A premiere-type atmosphere is a fully predictable condition of a Kehinde Wiley opening. The artist's own exuberant, outgoing personality alone is a PR magnet. Colorful characters in dapper suits with bowties, drag attire and Afro-glamour swirled through the jam-packed crowd inside the Sean Kelly Gallery for Wiley's newest show An Economy of Grace. Keenly scheduled during the opening weekend of the first Frieze NY, Wiley's election of female subjects was the major draw. Gleaming, film-star-quality black women were outfitted in luscious dresses designed in collaboration with Givenchy's creative director Riccardo Tisci, occupying postures once monopolized by white, European aristocratic wives and maids.
Resplendent in shimmering eyeshadows, gold-trimmed belts and cuffs, hair perfectly coiffed, these women were not movie stars at all but rather women whom Wiley spotted on one of several scouting trips through New York City. Wiley selected his male models in the same manner, consciously maintaining their personal fashion choices even as they resembled heroes out of Jacques-Louis David, Gainsborough, Singer Sargent and Reynolds. These women, however, emobdy the carefully contrived authority of their 17th and 18th Century white counterparts in fashions capably bridging the different time periods. While Wiley's young men appeared to inhabit the roles of rich, dead white men convincingly, their attire of baggy army fatigues and do-rags were employed as an affront to the perception of nobility based merely on appearance. Wiley adds a complex layer of historicity with his women: their gender, alone, had marginalized them against their husbands and suitors, as classical portraits rendered them as mere accompaniments, tokens of marriage proposals or objects of sexual contemplation. The placement of beautiful black women in this context cancels these complications, as they appear independent, resilient and capable of pursuing and defending their own being.
History aside, Wiley's leviathan paintings are unashamedly vivid with decorative floral backgrounds just shy of Roccoco-kitsch. The women, themselves, have flawless complexions, luscious facial features and are finely groomed. Each work oozes luxury and lifestyle of the rich and famous; they would smell like musky French perfume if they were flesh and blood. Happily, the inherent excess of the works don't obscure their significance within Wiley's oeuvre nor do they appear so showy that they are beyond critical value. Wiley amplifies the haute couture environment as a device, to illustrate the omnipresence of women as symbolic or allegorical elements as a whole in the history of visual art (specifically in the Western Hemisphere). Their seamless insertion into the guises of European noblewomen becomes elevated into contemporary conversation not by changing the color of their skin, but by the slightest lifts in their countenance: their looks spark sensations of pride and confidence in themselves.
Arguably the most celebrated work in the exhibition is 'Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha', a tall woman with her back to the viewer, robed in a shimmering lapis gown with a towering African-inspired hairstyle. Her face obscured, only the elegance of her body upright and tall is immediately discernible. Her title is meaningless, but we know that she is proud and poised no matter what her hidden facial expression may say. The communication of beauty is made clear with color, composition and her mere presence. Because she is facing away, her role as an aristocrat is cemented by her powerful aura which neither title nor her face may influence. She ably plays the role of royalty without sacrificing her existence as a woman of the current moment. The show's title refers, seemingly, to only a small sampling of the vast quantity of grace to be found in the community of women like those Wiley portrays.
Shana Beth Mason is a critic formerly based in Brooklyn now active in London, UK. Contributions include Art in America, ArtVoices Magazine, FlashArt International, InstallationMag (Los Angeles), Kunstforum.as (Oslo), The Brooklyn Rail, The Miami Rail, San Francisco Arts Quarterly (SFAQ), and thisistomorrow.info (London).
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