Book Review #35
Identity is an ever-shifting series of self-imposed labels that come from within and without. It is who we are and who we think we are that creates the self. We define ourselves based on that which we are attracted to or repulsed by; we identify with who we aspire to be and who we fear we are.
Identity is not a definition, though it feels as such because we like labels and use words to make static what is always changing and growing and moving towards the unknown. And in using words to identify ourselves, we begin with what we can biologically determine: race, gender, age, sexuality. Then to this we add into what we are born: class, nationality, family. And the list goes on, as we pile label after label on top of ourselves.
We appear to ourselves in the mirror of other people’s eyes, and it only through relationship that we can begin to realize, to recognize, to seek new definitions, or even better yet release ourselves from words at all. And when we release ourselves we become free as the soul has always intended; we become spirits of the universe.
And it is these spirits with whom we seek communion when we engage with art, for it is in the artwork that the spirit finds its manifestation here on earth. It is the work of art that outlives us all, and if that work of art is cherished and protected, it might last thousands of years. And into this realm the photograph has emerged, not just as a thing of immediacy, of a means to documenting the time in which our bodies inhabit the earth, but a way that we can leave a record of how we see ourselves.
Kehinde Wiley is at the vanguard of redefining the image of the African American male in our lexicon. He has taken an image to some that is the height of masculinity, a kind of original maleness that is so profound that it has been denigrated in ways that go beyond the scope of this essay. He has taken the black man and restored him to a kind of beauty that has yet to be seen in the likes of the canon of western art history.
In Kehinde Wiley (Rizzoli International Publications), the artist shows us a catalogue of work that has shot him to the forefront of the artworld today. Best known for his paintings, recreations of works that became icons of power, status, money, virtue, and (for lack of a better word) humanity, Wiley has co-opted our understanding of art as a propaganda machine. His work easily subverts the representation of the Great White Male, but more than that, it crosses every threshold by subtly causing us to question our assumptions of representation of the common man.
But that common man is not just any man, he is young and he is black and that is an image that the media has long sought to pervert. And within this book, Wiley includes a powerful series of photographs, photographs remaking artworks that he painted luxurious patterns upon. And so he offers up yet another juxtaposition, the issue of sexuality as it is codified by representations of the masculine and feminine. What is it to be hyper masculine yet surrounded by flowers? What is it to pose a man in the same pose as the Virgin Mary? What is it to show us beauty as something that is not from a framework we know, yet integrates canonical representations of that which is the beauty of the soul?
Wiley offers no answers. He simply questions, over and over again, and the more he questions the easier it is for us to forget. To release ourselves from our assumptions and be swept away by the force of the spirit of beauty that lives and breathes through the work itself.
With contributions by Thelma Golden, Robert Hobbs, Sarah E. Lewis,
Brian Keith Jackson, and Peter Halley
Hardcover with Jacket / 9.5” x 12.5” /
256 pages, 275 color illustrations
$65 US, $70 Canadian, £40 UK
Rizzoli New York
Release date: May 2012
There will be an exhibition of Kehinde Wiley’s work titled An Economy of Grace from May 5 - June 16, 2012 at Sean Kelly Gallery
528 West 29th Street
For info visit http://www.skny.com
The Jewish Museum, New York, is exhibiting Kehinde Wiley/The World Stage: Israel through July 29, 2012. The exhibition features 14 large-scale portraits of Israeli youths, from diverse ethnic and religious affiliations, alongside 11 works — papercuts and textiles — chosen by the artist from the Museum’s collection.