Kehinde Wiley At SLAM

I am obsessed. I went to see the Kehinde Wiley: St. Louis exhibit 3 times in 5 days. It is a once in a life time show. Wiley went to Ferguson, asked people if he could paint them, took poses from master paintings at the museum and RECREATED THE POSES WITH POWERFUL BLACK FIGURES!

Saint Jerome Hearing the Trumpet of the Last Judgment
(My absolute favorite painting.)

I didn’t know anything about the show before hand or that it was even happening. I went because a group of friends wanted to see a design and architecture show. I only knew he painted Obama’s portrait.

I left with the feeling I had witnessed a profound reclamation of space and territory that rightfully belongs to not just Wiley, but every one of his subjects.

The first time I went I was so overwhelmed with these larger than life portraits and the lush details. I got lost in feeling these portraits take over the museum, even though they are in a relatively small area. The overwhelming feeling was of power and defiance. I loved every second I spent witnessing a room full of black portraiture, not in a gallery, not in a contemporary museum, but in a historical and institutional museum like SLAM. Where 99% of the paintings are of and by white people. These paintings owned every bit of that space and dared anyone to question their place there.

Obviously, I spent plenty of time soaking up the folds of fabric and reflective light* and facial expressions, but that’s truly only the surface of this experience and if that had been my only time there, I would have missed so much. Although, it would have still been a mesmerizing exhibit. Ask anyone who happened to come into contact with me the first 24 hours after. I might as well have mainlined the show. High was the only way to describe how I felt.

In fact, I went back the very next afternoon. This time I noticed how he treats women. Normally, I am not about men painting women and their issues. It is typically virtue signaling and clearly the men want pats on the back for being so empathetic, yet they fail to realize they only understand those issues on a surface level. It never even occurs to them to ask women if their representations are even accurate. I’ve literally seen men argue with women about how the man’s work is feminist and not degrading. In general, men need to step aside and let a woman have that space.

Wiley is an honorary woman, in my book. He definitely doesn’t need my approval and he may not want to be an honorary woman, but I bow down to his masterful and considerate portrayal of women in these works. First of all, he takes the pose of Three Girls In A Wood by Otto Müller for his own painting titled Three Girls In A Wood and not only does refuse to paint them nude, he paints them in clothes of their choosing, as he does with all of his subjects. He gives them a voice in their own depiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good nude body as much as the next person, but Wiley consciously deciding not to objectify them and to let them decide how they wanted to be presented is the best way to amplify the voices of women when they don’t get a place to speak for themselves.

Second, his paintings show the imperfections. Not in a trite, “look at how brave this actress is for not wearing make-up,” way. In a, “this is how people and bodies are and that’s how he represents them,” way. He doesn’t glorify the imperfection. He just lets them be. In the aforementioned, Three Girls In A Wood the shape of a bra strap can be seen through a shirt. In another painting, the outline of the bra cups. In a society where panty lines are smoothed out and girls are sent home from school for an exposed shoulder, not to mention airbrushing, he’s allowing women to just exist without covering up or exploiting their flaws. There’s no need to change anything about them. What a truly revolutionary concept. In both paintings, the effect is subtle. The imperfections are there as well as their fierceness.

Jacob de Graeff
(My second favorite.)

The third time I went to see this show, I finally realized how he tied it all together. One thing I found so brilliant is his utilization of these intense patterns was that he made them seem completely natural. My eye didn’t fight between the figure and pattern, even when the pattern tried to engulf the figure. Each figure looks perfectly anchored in their setting.

His use of reflective light was satisfying from the first time I stood in front of these works. I kept looking back at those areas and pointing them out to people I was with. On a couple, I even noticed how the color of the back ground was used in the reflective light right away. Maybe I’m just a little slow on the uptake, but I’m going with part of his mastery is the subtlety of his use of background color in his reflective light. These paintings are on average 8′ x 6′ and the color choices are in your face. It was impossible for me to truly take a painting in as a whole right away. So, my ego demands, it’s not at fault it took me three visits to realize Wiley uses the colors from the patterned background in the reflective light almost all the time. There’s just too much brilliance to take in at once.

In some, like the lower right (your right) pant leg in Jacob de Graeff, it is the main background color. In others, like Portrait of Florentine Nobleman or Portrait of Mahogany Jones and Marcus Stokes he uses a secondary background color. No matter which he chooses, the effect is one of seamlessly merging flat, intricate patterns and fully rendered portraits into one, shared reality.

Portrait of Mahogany Jones and Marcus Stokes

It makes me weak in the knees.

The first night I walked away from this show the only way I could accurately describe it was life affirming. I was so grateful to witness this moment in time. With every fiber of my being, I say it was an honor to stand in the same room as these paintings.

*Reflective light: Light bouncing off an object near the main subject and lighting the shadow side of the subject. The reflective light carries the color of the near-by object and reflects it onto the main subject. For example, if you have a white sphere on a green table, the light would bounce off the table and turn the under side of the white sphere green.

About Elisha

Elisha Dasenbrock is an award winning, international watercolor artist. She paints with a limited palette on claybord. Dasenbrock graduated from the American Academy of Art in 2009 and has been painting professionally ever since.