by Skye Sherwin, Sat 25 Nov 2017
Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
Editor’s note: old news
Kehinde Wiley: In Search of the Miraculous is at Stephen Friedman gallery, London, until 27 January.
The US artist picked as Obama’s official portraitist plots a romantic, maritime course for his show “In Search of the Miraculous”
Kehinde Wiley is the superstar American painter famed for placing anonymous, beautiful black men in kitsch pastiches of Old Master portraits of the ruling class. He is also that rare thing, an artist who has broken through to a mass audience. In addition to his street-cast “boys”, as he has called his models, he’s painted a black pantheon, from hip-hop stars to Michael Jackson. Fox’s most-watched soap, Empire, uses his paintings as a sure-fire sign of black empowerment. Topping it all, it was recently announced that he is to be the official portraitist of Barack Obama.
He’s also made his first film, which speaks, amid paradisal swimming scenes, of how the self (so central to the romantics) has been violently denied to black people. In voiceover, we get quotes from philosopher Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation, and African-Caribbean philosopher, revolutionary and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, about “otherness”, engendered by colonisation or imposed on the mad, as well as the medieval “ship of fools” and its pilgrimage for selfhood. While this brings an intellectual framework behind the seascapes somewhat neatly into focus, the thinkers’ weighty ideas about psychic violence and cultural trauma are never convincingly borne out in the works themselves.