One of the best art gallery exhibit highlights of 2017 starred Kehinde Wiley’s impressive new paintings at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City.
The art loving visitor is firstly seduced inside near darkness, wandering around spacious grounds like a lost, hungry traveler in a forest field, the paintings playing storied trees planted on every wall. Clad in alluring mystery, these tremendous, cloak and dagger narratives were spaced apart with single, focused lights casting luminous brilliance upon celebrated contemporary black artists, some of the most compelling painters, photographers, sculptors, and multi-disciplinarians of this moment– Mickelene Thomas, Hank Willis Thomas, Derrick Addams, and more. Each easily identified artist has become a fictionalized character straight out of a spine tingling Grimm, stripped of modernity, transformed into period costume, regal defiance vividly illustrated in their body language and facial expressions.
Art history buffs love talking about the specifics of hand direction. In the past, in paintings especially, viewers read images left to right, carefully paying close attention to what acts hands perform. Wiley’s articulated gestures took away oppressive authorship, allowing black bodies to become valiant protagonists more than lower class subjects. No longer slaves or props, Wiley’s myriad of friends appear like Caravaggio or Gentileschi figures, caught in vicious acts (in his portrait of painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye for example), surrounded in single light sources, either staring out through the canvas or turning away. He has Rashid Johnson’s hand on Sanford Biggers shoulder in a tender, bonding moment wearing matching flowing pink shirts, Wangechi Mutu wielding snakes like a sultry Medusa like goddess in a fetching blue toga dress and bounded braids, and Kerry James Marshall in an oval composition using his hands as an educator in three parts.
This elegant portrait of Carrie Mae Weems standing amongst rocky mountains and a picturesque desert sky landscape is a stunning achievement. Elaborate patterns and folds of her gold dress are remarkable, her jeweled hand in a powerful clutch, and her curled updo has queenly justice.
Wiley is a painter known for putting musicians, rappers, and other pioneers in his Art Noveau meets black realism pedestals. In “Trickster,” he includes his fellow black visual artist peers, this body of work a deeper close up of the black artist as the documentarian of the present. Each and every one of these people are creating the works the world needs to see and remember.