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A Review of An Inspiration

Although I am living a full and complex life, it feels like everything I am doing these days is school. So I thought I would share some of what I have been working on. This month, I thought I’d share an Arts Review that I submitted for one of my classes...

A Review of Economy of Grace by Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley instantly became one of my favorite artists the first time I saw his grand and radiant portraits from World Stage, hanging on the walls of the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. In reviewing his current exhibition, Economy of Grace, Wiley is clearly expanding on his earlier works, while simultaneously exploring some distinct departures. In Economy of Grace, as in all of Wiley’s prior well-known works, I find his technique remarkable. Even in viewing the pieces of this collection on my computer through the PBS documentary, Kehinde Wiley: an Economy of Grace, the colors radiate off the screen. My experience of his works in person, and of his 2009 book Black Light, are that many of his pieces are so precisely painted th

at it is hard to believe they are not photographs. I get the impression that the same will be true of an in-person experience of the paintings that make up Economy of Grace. I am especially struck by his ability to depict, in vivid detail, the diversity of skin tones across and wide range of Black bodies. The hues that he brings to life are vibrant and rich in their complexity. The relationships between the subjects and the wallpaper backgrounds are intriguing and playful, at once invoking a commentary on history and its missing representations and a whimsical aesthetic tone. Interestingly, after being drawn to William Morris and John Ruskin by reading about the Arts & Crafts Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Spretnak’s Resurgence of the Real, I found myself excited by organic themed wallpapers similar to those found in Wiley’s work.

Economy of Grace debuted at Sean Kelly Gallery, which might give a clue regarding the intended audience for the work. However, in general, I am not sure who, precisely, Kehinde Wiley is painting for. Perhaps there is a clue to be found in the title of his last collection, World Stage, as his work has been created from subjects drawn from throughout the African diaspora. In some contexts, it seems that his work is intended for African Americans or for Black people globally. In other circumstances, it seems that the work is meant to be an international invitation to the world’s non-elites to find themselves and their representations within the global context of fine art. And sometimes, the work seems to be a direct comment and assertion of space directed towards European decedents, the world over. In one of Wiley’s current portraits, “Judith with the head of Holofernes”, the Black female subject is holding the pony tail of a White woman, while the head dangles, bodiless, from her hand. Who is Wiley speaking to here? Black people? White women? Perhaps the intended audience is all of us.

Prior to the creation of Economy of Grace, World Stage was comprised exclusively of Black male subjects. By placing Black men at center stage, while invoking the spirit of classic European paintings, and by painting these Black portraits on such enormous platforms (sometimes nearly floor to ceiling), Wiley speaks directly to Spretnak’s observation regarding the absent voices of Romantic era art. Wiley’s work replaces the elite subject with the “commoner”, and invites us all question our notions of power. These works offered the opportunity to reconsider our past, and our future, seeing Black men in rare, triumphant, and even regal depictions. This aspect of Wiley’s work is especially relevant at a time when violence against Black people in America, which has been symbolized by violence against Black men is ringing loudly across the nation.

Economy of Grace was Wiley’s first venture into working with Black women. Perhaps this is also appropriately timed with the activist-driven energy that has been turning towards naming the Black women who have been the recent victims of horrific violence in America as well. However, the making of Economy of Grace began long before the public eye began to acknowledge the ongoing loss of Black female lives in the country, so it seems likely that this is just a notable, and perhaps unfortunate, happenstance. In any case, Wiley’s departure from male subjects speaks to his commitment to his continued artistic growth and exploration, but this choice also raises some questions. In Wiley’s previous work with men, they were all depicted in their own clothing, serving as an opportunity for them to have agency around how they were portrayed, creating themselves in their own image. The women of Economy of Grace, alternatively, were dressed in customized gowns designed by Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy. The gowns were fashioned after clothing of the elite from 19th century Europe, which inspired Wiley’s vision. And the gowns were gorgeous. But in dressing the women “up”, what was lost of the women’s ability to create their own self-images? Is the implication that the women needed this European male expert to fashion them a container so that we may be able to recognize their beauty? Does the clothing make them more palatable? Or does it just make it easier for us to except them in these galleries and museums of “fine art”? Yes the clothing and wigs were dramatic and exciting, but by including them, were the women not simply made into dolls? And what of Wiley’s previous messages was impacted or sacrificed in the process?

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