Nine Notes on how Kehinde Wiley makes Black Lives Matter
1. More is More
August, 2023 – As of this writing, there is plenty of time left for the de Young Museum’s general audience to make it to the Kehinde Wiley show, An Archaeology of Silence.
Much of that audience will be attracted to the show by the celebrity Wiley earned through being the selected artist for the official Presidential portrait of megastar Barack Obama. But that very large painting, with its curious leafy background, and the near-laconic expression of a specific real person, famously adored (or hated), gives no real clue to how this extensive new installation, of many pieces about anonymous persons, works.
There is, however, one obvious similarity: like that Presidential painting, almost everything about Wiley’s show at the de Young Museum is big. The place itself, the artist’s talent, the works themselves, and the mission of the work.
First: there is the assertively theatrical de Young exhibit space created for the show. And in that space, we find right away that Wiley’s sheer productivity is gargantuan and fills it up, making it seem even bigger, in our eyes.
Next: there’s his huge skill. How long does it take to achieve this level, anyway? In this show, Wiley reaches back centuries and dares us to compare his work with that of Old Masters, many of whom had a life expectancy only in the forties. Today, in his forties, Wiley’s skill portends much more. And winning the dare, the dramatic impact of his own craft does not wear off at any point during the long trek from the exhibit’s beginning to its end.
And finally: there’s the main issue; what that skill addresses. The show is very specifically positioned as a “message” show; systemic, global violence against Black people cannot be allowed to go unnoticed and uncorrected. No small thing.
The sizing of the show is grandly impressive. But in the end, the show’s real importance, its value, rests in whether the message gets received by audiences.
Each of the following notes looks into a way that this value emerges.
2. Getting the story
On arriving at the exhibit’s theater-space, we experience the works, appropriately, in two ways: influenced on the one hand by our attention to “the plot” and on the other, by the “stagecraft” both around and within the pieces.
Naturally the show intends the two things to be complementary. The stagecraft must make the story accessible, not compete with it.
But in this show, there is a significant amount of competition anyway – between what the presentation offers, and what mindset an audience may bring to the show.
In a classic tenet of theater, theatrical “reality” is an artifice, composed entirely of what makes sense to the play’s characters, regardless of the audience. A “suspension of disbelief” allows the artists to present the audience with something that feels plausible without the burden of being feasible.
At this show, Wiley appropriates centuries-old art conventions as stagings for the persons seen in his sculptures and paintings, their modern actors. That means the audience will be trying to grasp a current message through that use of the past. But that’s not the only gap that the audience’s interpretation must deal with.
As an audience, we arrive already having our own reservoir of visual knowledge. That knowledge, in effect, makes up the belief we have in our own familiar sense of reality. Of course, not all audiences are alike, but there is clearly an enormous potential audience – a modern audience – whose familiarity is predominantly with a pervasive media-driven culture that doesn’t easily acquiesce to being subordinated.
Now, a museum, just like a church or a school – or a theater – exists specifically to signal a particular shift in the mentality expected as one walks through the front doors. The de Young asks us to be willing to suspend the familiar, media-driven reality in favor of the invented realism of Wiley’s scenes.
But what makes that happen? How does the intended interpretation of the show work?
Here is the objective, surface description:
Along with the de Young’s curators and programmers, Wiley himself prefaces our direct experience of the works by defining them as a historic excavation of overlooked global violence against the Black race.
To show that, the exhibit consists of works using imagery drawn from art history, featuring highly iconic figures now renovated in a modern style.
The technique of repurposing old forms for new effect relies on how our visual experiences have created our sense of knowing something.
Through that overall three-part configuration, Wiley’s works intend to communicate. In process, each of the artworks does most of its work through portraying body language.
Collectively, the statements made in that language intend to substantiate the message of the show. In effect, those statements made in body language are Wiley’s lexicon.
One of the definitions of “lexicon” easily found on the web is this one: “the vocabulary of a person, language, or branch of knowledge.” In that description, the key part I am calling out is “a branch of knowledge.” That, and the space between Wiley’s knowledge and our own.
As an audience, what do we already know that we bring with us to his show? In communicating with this show about a matter of current urgency, our vocabulary starts out as the lexicon of what is “modern”.
3. Seeing is Believing?
Wiley places a stereotyped version of contemporary black men and women into staged scenarios. The scenarios each imply a narrative – a potentially violent one – that would have led to the final or climactic moment apparent in each particular artwork.
But despite how we are coached by the artist and curators to see the works, these narratives are not assuredly certain in the viewing. There are issues.
One issue is that the figures shown in the work are generally decked out in high profile name brand clothing.
We understand that corporate brands represent the largess of commercial capitalism, but this show’s argument highlights that its pervasiveness has failed to be protective. That observation could further dramatize the violence we’re told to notice (“wow, even cool people aren’t safe!”) But there are two flavors of tragedy here, each about the ignorance of innocence. In both, the artworks suggest that the portrayed persons, embracing the brands, may have unwittingly nurtured their antagonists and their own demise. First, the subjects’ brand adoption may have attracted violence to them, just as does wearing the wrong gang colors. And second, perhaps the brands are the bad guys. Brand power, which the subjects intended to use to enhance themselves, appears to have been quite indifferently hostile to their aspirations of it, actually making them its victims as if by unexpected overdose of some favored drug.
Another issue: we, the audience also know that these brands are expensive. In these paintings and sculptures, does the subjects’ preoccupation with pricey style devalue their status as victims, in our eyes?
Feeling sorry for privileged people is probably not a natural instinct for a viewer who is not privileged. (there’s no headcount here, but in a general audience some people are going to have a lot less wealth than others.) And since, as well, the stereotype of Black victims is historically so strongly associated with their being poor, this consumerism introduces more dissonance into our experience of the images.
Furthermore, today many people already take it for granted, in a way that undermines the proposed message, that the subjects’ preoccupation with this style comes along with being urban and Black. Thats includes the notion that Blacks use style very assertively to project among themselves “the right way” to be black, a standard of being black enough. Between the bling and the hint of internecine racism, Wiley’s stereotyping of his high-styled figures raise a question of what priorities Blacks have even while being under both economic and cultural siege.
And a third issue: in the year 2023, it is probable that we viewers have long ago digested the body language iconography of Hollywood Westerns, war movies, horror films, newscasts, crime dramas and fashion advertising. Here, let’s also recognize that “TV shows” actually contain all of those other forms, distributing their content farther and faster than any of them otherwise can separately. And the internet has merely amplified the earlier established hegemony of radio-wave broadcasting. In short, we have a common visual language learned from, and now driven by, always-on media, a literal stream of consciousness.
With all that in place, then there is what we see in Wiley’s works, unless persuaded otherwise…
What is displayed in many of the works is contorted bodies, creepy things that wrap around you, and inscrutable eyes featured as if they are the leftovers of dangerous encounters with snipers, monsters, and drugs. And, there are as many other works that show what appears to be far less tense -- the figure taking a nap; daydreaming; maybe just dropped to the ground somewhere kind of random, now tired after chasing or being chased; or, merely being caught up in a psychic selfie. These are the ordinary reality, the default references (narratives), of a modern general audience’s grasp of imagery, in particular an iconography of body language. (In the remainder of this writing, I will caption illustrations to point out differences such as the above.)
For modern audiences, coming to a museum of arts, how much energy does it take to not see Wiley’s images in terms of the icons of other media – to suspend our “belief” in our familiarity, and instead attribute Wiley’s displayed body language to something else the artist and curator claim is real?
Yes of course, many of us also have substantial familiarity with imagery in the fine arts both historical and contemporary. But for general audiences, the viral propagation of icons and memes in media and social networking predisposes what the figures in Wiley’s work “intrinsically” convey.
This means that without the show’s perspective-setting wall texts and other directions, something qualitative about the art works must enable them to express the advertised ambition of the work, to encourage as necessary the suspension of disbelief. To get us to suspend our attention to our already familiar references, to that composite lexicon from media and social culture. And instead to allow Wiley’s paintings and sculptures to mean what they intend, as art.
4. Subject Matters
“Black lives matter” is both the super-theme and the subtext of the show.
The very large number and scale of works in the show is an appropriately proportional response to the global ubiquity of anti-Black abuse that is the exhibit’s subject. But it’s a challenge.
The introductory “narrative” (rationale) for the show tells us to presume that all of the various works, with their shared iconography, refer to the same insidious phenomenon – chronic violence. Armed with that, we walk through the show, “testing” each piece as some expression of that presumption.
The show’s curator tells us that we’ll be doing that with a special point of view -- a privileged one, up close. The curator’s text continues, coupling precariousness …
… and elegy.
Oxford Languages describes precarious as:
“not securely held or in position; dangerously likely to fall or collapse. dependent on chance; uncertain.”
Wikipedia tells us this about elegy:
“An elegy is … usually a lament for the dead. However, [it] remains remarkably ill defined: sometimes used as a catch-all to denominate texts of a somber or pessimistic tone, sometimes as a marker for textual monumentalizing, and sometimes strictly as a sign of a lament for the dead… for a departed beloved or tragic event.”
So it turns out that “elegy” is a pretty good name for the variety of emphasis that the works apply to their shared theme. And by setting the overall context of the works as a somber meditation on the riskiness of being Black, the show’s curatorial notes set the goal of the exhibition very clearly as Gained Awareness.+
But this privileged view heads towards another goal as well. Objectively, it will also be a questionable voyeurism, one that asks why these subjects are allowed to be harmed, or that scolds the viewer for not having paid sufficiently close attention before. From that angle, the value of the show is ultimately in what people do about the awareness; it aims for Activism.
The explicit curation of the show ambitiously tells us what to expect. But Awareness raises the question of who the audience is that materializes for this show. And Activism, in turn, requires the works to influence that audience – whether by shame, support, or inspiration – to do something about the awareness that it would gain or have.
5. That Body Language
The generous number of paintings and sculptures in the show emphasizes that awareness is a goal. And the artist’s statement suggests that we will recognize in every piece some flavor of undeserved vulnerability of the figure portrayed.
Their highly repetitive uniformity of style combines with the wide variety of their scenes to establish the show’s theme about Blacks suffering a certain kind of treatment everywhere they are.
So overall, the show comprises a body of evidence.
Wiley makes the primary objective of each work to present a body as evidence of the artist’s theme. In each case, then, we as viewers can ask about the person shown in a work, “how did they get this way?” The “answer” is a narrative that we ourselves imagine, informed whether subtly or overtly by the details in the piece.
This is all about what the works tell us themselves, rather than what we are told to look for.
Each artwork that we are viewing needs to drive the imagination– to provide the details that will take us from our conventional wisdom, our habits of seeing, to the way that the piece wants to be seen – that is, to Wiley’s wisdom.
What we mostly see in the show is the postures of the bodies. But, even in the compelling 3-dimensionality of the sculptures, there is not always a convincing case made for the proposed theme.
For example, some works appear to be showing people not wounded or injured but sleeping. We already know what sleeping looks like. The artwork needs to get through that.
[Seen: uncomfortable, perhaps, but tired enough to sleep anyway.]
In others, the initial appearance is that something abnormal is attacking the person, or already has. But the piece triggers our visual memory of silent creepy monsters in the movies or tv dramas.
[Seen: caught, and soon dragged under, or starved…]
Finally, in yet others, we see aftermaths – lost causes. But we first work from our memory of crime scenes…
[Seen: found after the ransom was already paid…]
…or of gladiators, cowboys, or generals killed by enemies on the trails or fields around the far bend.
[Seen: fallen heroes brought back home by their horse.…]
In another case, an entombed figure looks like he may be there only temporarily, his head turned in a way telling us that fairly soon rising among the walking “undead” is definitely in the cards – joining other zombies awaiting.
Having arrived at the show with a wide range of pre-established associations in mind, we are asked by the artist and the curators to see these pieces differently, and to see their different meanings as all stemming from the same common cause.
But along with how easily the displayed postures associate to other ideas, the monochrome surfaces of the sculptures makes their figures’ presumed misfortune initially easy to “read” as not being about a specific race.
That challenge is at the heart of the artist’s pronounced need for the show. “Excavating” the truth that is the show’s message would not be necessary if the world at large was not so insensitive to it or misdirected from it.
When we see the works as the show intends them to be seen, we do that despite our real life’s ordinary reinforcement of other imagery and memes – a different and literally endless repetitive presentation by TV’s dominant broadcasting, and now from the internet’s maturity into a social and commercial always on medium as well.
That accumulated visual language, that stream of consciousness that we bring with us to the show, is easily activated by these art works. Because of that, the pieces then need their own strategies and differentiating qualities that ensure they can establish themselves, and communicate to us, on their own terms instead.
For example (as seen above): in sculptures of apparent sleepers, we first work from our own memory of the places where, by choice or even involuntarily, one sleeps. But in those pieces, there may be a visible disjunction of the body and the place, such as the stoniness or sliminess of the ground underneath the Sleeper – a clue that something is not right. That disjunction is a key device of Wiley’s method to break through our familiarity and get his point across.
6. Intending Art
We see disjunction in the paintings as well.
Wiley is especially well-known for his unusual juxtapositions of subject (person) and setting (field or ground). And in the painted illusions, his talent offers him the freedom to precisely render Black persons as subjects in a hi-fidelity facsimile of important legacy art conventions historically devoid of Blacks.
They dazzle with color along with surface detail, giving them a three-dimensionality that is illusory but equally strong as the sculptures. With the sculptures, we do not get those color qualities brightly projected as backgrounds or surfaces. But the sculptures serve to intensify our recognition of the signal bodily gestures and shapes that we find in the paintings.
And this again means that the works get tested against what the audience brings. Case in point: outside of the fine art context, nothing makes more continual use of iconic body language, at all size scales from pages to billboards, than does commercial fashion advertising (see Part VII). It is just not difficult to find displays of subject matter and attitude in advertising that correspond to many of Wiley’s images.
© doodko | Credit: Depositphotos
Given the combination of television, cinema and social media, there is rarely a case where body images such as those in this show have not already been fully exploited in the acculturating narratives of style and fiction. As a result, Wiley needs for us to look for how their use in art makes them affect us differently, enough so to make them central to our ongoing attention.
Seen that way, Wiley’s work could be “read” as a systematic effort to reclaim those body images a repurpose them for a specific kind of consideration more serious than style or fiction.
But it doesn’t make sense to assume that style and fiction haven’t already thought about the same issues that Wiley’s work takes as motivation, and that they are not serious when they intend to be. What works harder than fashion, after all, to advocate the freedom of expressing multiple cultures and their right to exist?
That is, there is no strong case that art makes these kinds of images more important than they already are elsewhere.
Instead, what is important now about their appearance in art channels is that we count on art to meaningfully alter perception. Something that, for example, Warhol’s work did. Or Dali, or Duchamp, or Munch, or Bacon, or…
7. How does the art work?
As a Black audience member, I did not attend the show to be enlightened about something I already knew. But as an artist, I came to see how the work functioned, how it gets its job done.
Addressing our perception, Wiley is notable among a contemporary world of brilliant image-makers. By setting his own skill to the task of producing portrayals of Blacks in historically classic forms, he performs an act that dignifies his subjects – an act that was beforehand withheld from them by predominant northern and western cultures and is still today uncommon as history. His effort directly targets the problem that history is “written by the winners” and by being normalized that way becomes not just obscuring but oppressive. The punchline here is that Wiley’s art is, as much as anything, about how art itself has been at least complicit, if not intentional, in the systemic violence against blacks. But again, it also means that the work’s strategy is essentially theatrical.
Meanwhile, the most obvious source of fresh impact that comes from the works in the show is Wiley’s enormous technical virtuosity in creating material effects. Whether it be through skin made of bronze, or shoelaces made of oil, the images simply have a visceral influence that makes (or at least helps) one’s mind work differently for a while.
To emphasize that point, we can compare Wiley’s work to that of artist Arinze Stanley, a virtuoso draftsman whose focus on Black subjects was described this way with clear relevance to the Wiley show’s ambition:
“The striking series of thought-provoking images guide the viewers ‘into what is almost a psychedelic and uncertain experience of being Black in the 21st century.’ ” (Sara Barnes, December 13, 2020, Hyperrealistic Pencil Portraits Offer a Surreal Look Into Being Black in Today’s World, Mymodernmet.com)
Wiley’s pieces have a similar hyperrealism, one that makes us feel like we are there with the figure being portrayed. This is what bridges the gap between what is real to us and what the artist fabricates– between what we already knew and what Wiley asks us to see.
Readily situated in an artistic current that stretches back to the 1970s, Wiley’s hyperrealism is familiar to many regular art-viewers. Yet at the same time, it is not dogmatic about the style. Instead, it baits us in that mode and then pulls off a switch.
Physically, neither the sculptures nor the paintings are comprehensively high-fidelity to both the textures and touch of what they show. Case in point: the reality of skin is that it is not hard or cold as with the sculptures, and it has color variation and pores far more than is seen in the paintings. But far from being a drawback, the glossy stylizations done by Wiley in metal and in paint abstract the figures, like mass-produced dolls, into an iconic use as tokens. The effect of the visual reductions is to make the figure typical, in a way that Wiley defines Blackness for recognition – representing all Blacks present among us.
With the sculptures, especially where the works are smaller than us, spotlighting isolates the figure from its surroundings, and those surroundings are psychologically replaced with what you are sensing in your mind. The staging makes us focus, and in that concentration, we spot the abundant, fluent, detailing of human shape – something we immediately identify with. We don’t feel that other information is missing.
The paintings are all larger – several of them dwarfing us as we approach. In a different way, this size has us “zooming in” on the subject at a detail level, made even more apparent by the very bright lights on the paintings. But again, what’s being pursued is a degree of identification that dispels a need for more than what is there.
The iconographic effect resolves the tension between the body language as offered by Wiley versus what an audience might bring. Although somewhat subliminal, it makes Wiley’s intention clearer.
But this still doesn’t mean that the paintings will communicate correctly against audience predispositions.
[Industrial gloss connotes both commodity-grade value and idealization…]
[Crime scene, or accident?]
So how do the paintings successfully communicate when they do?
Let’s go back to being big. The first thing that happens with figures at a scale larger than our own is that they feel as if they are occupying our own physical space. This starts fusing our thoughts and feelings into one impactful experience, somewhere on a spectrum between intimacy and imposition. It’s essentially what people are talking about when they say that they find something to be “captivating”.
And more emphatically, hyperrealism pulls you into its space. You consider what is happening to the subject portrayed, but you do it with a big dose of imagining that it was happening to you.
Put simply, while the collection of works is theatrical and visceral, the most important effect is that it is sympathetic.
As described by the Meriam Webster dictionary:
“In general, sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them.”
In this description, “share” – meaning “also have” – pertains to what we think we know about the feelings of the subjects. But that is mostly what we ourselves attribute to the poses they have in the setting Wiley has given them.
We can make our own attribution in a couple of different ways. One is by relying on a conventional meaning that we have already learned to associate with the poses. Another, by relying on our intuition of what we would feel like in those same poses.
Wiley’s work attempts to give us a third way: by newly adopting what is claimed by someone else, namely, the artist – and trying it on for size.
8. Conventional Wisdom, Popular Belief
Psychologically, say communications experts, getting a message through might rely on sheer repetition as much as on anything else. But in art, as in media, that is highly familiar as the practice of variations on a theme.
A major feature of the Wiley artworks is the “sameness” of the figures from one picture to another, It is intentional; it establishes that there are not especially personal dramas being portrayed to make a point. Rather, the point is that the vulnerability or precariousness being shown applies indiscriminately to “any Black, anywhere.”
But the works also run through a wide variety of postures. The postures communicate something that the viewer thinks they already understand.
The question is, does that understanding correspond with what Wiley intends to signal?
[Death, or euphoria?]
These days, the strategy of providing scenarios that viewers already understand usually plays out somewhere already culturally ubiquitous: and it’s not in religion; it’s in fashion advertising.
[Leisure, longing, or simply demure beauty?]
In this type of advertising, the fashion artist’s device is to provide context which makes the figure’s condition meaningful. But what is the meaning?
In the abstract, fashion might be pursuing surprise by generating a new understanding, an expansion of recognition; an awareness. Or it might be pursuing inspiration by generating sympathetic sharing, a reinforcement of aspiration or identity; a motive to act.
More concretely, fashion’s scenarios span from fantasies on the one hand to contradictions on the other, with exemplary propriety parked in the middle of the range. That is, fashion imagists routinely rely on being able to engage the viewer through daring, through affirmation, or through shock.
Regardless of which way is chosen, what usually makes those images gripping is the sense that the artist’s imagination on display is really about the viewer’s imagination (a sympathetic engagement).
It matters hugely that these Wiley works can have the meaning that the artist intends. But it matters even more that the works must entice the viewer to allow the artist’s meaning to emerge in competition with what the viewer already knows – and then be embraced.
Either the audience wants to help do that, or it finds that it happens involuntarily. For the former, the works recruit us. For the latter, they both compare and reflect us. The latter is a way to raise awareness; the former, a way to call for action.
9. The Secret of Success
Some people who come to see the show might bring the special visual learnings of historically advocated formal art.
With that point of view, sensitivity to art conventions sets the expectations about what the artist used to make decisions and communicate as well as the sensitivities to it. That viewer perceives the work as being personally offered to achieve personal relevance to that viewer.
But everyone else who comes to see the show might bring mainly the general visual learnings of mass media with them. With that point of view, art’s ability to challenge conventions is its most interesting aspect. The broad scope of mass media is impersonally offered, yet hoped to become personally relevant.
For the show to really be impactful per its message, the challenge is to create an experience that, whether originated personally or impersonally, is shareable either way and is shared in both ways for the same reason.
What is the most probable shared experience across the de Young’s differing audiences?
The curators explicitly recognized that for many Blacks, the show’s message is not one that they needed a show to convey. And aiming for art history connoisseurs does not on the surface seem to serve the mission of the work even though it likely would be beneficial to Wiley’s career.
Above and beyond all ambiguity, the main sharable ingredient in Wiley’s work is the passion of his artistic effort.
We know passion as a devoted intensity and emotion, and we know emotional intensity as being dramatic. This drama communicates how much he cares about what he says. The goal is that it will be something that motivates awareness into becoming activism.
Wiley is undeniably performing a kind of activism by rescuing and completing these works from a project he had years earlier abandoned, and by doing it passionately. His effort metaphorically asks us to leave behind, now, those things that have been keeping us from paying attention before, including the way we have gotten used to seeing things. The show’s true ambition is to establish that our comfort zones are actually the fictions. The real world is the one the show intends to bring forth.
What we come away with from the Wiley show is the aesthetic excitement of the effort he invested in the message. Its intensity asks us to permanently leave behind any lingering indifference or inattention that we may have had to the issue addressed by the show. It wants us to instead take it upon ourselves to not only notice the problem but to look for it. To respond to its theatricality, is viscerality, its sympathy.
The goal of this intensity is to make that awareness unforgettable. It asks us to question our comfort zones, whether they be historical, artistic, in pop culture, or any combination thereof, and not allow them to obscure present realities.
We learn from the curators that this show came about when Wiley decided to revive an earlier abandoned effort and make it effective for now. The parallel of that with what the show asks of us is both close and poignant. The show overall, in its exceptional artistry, is essentially an activist’s effort, deliberately using the past to influence the future, and recruiting us into its advocacy.
The challenge of transcending the audience’s various differences is met with this: through the sheer force of his works’ aesthetics, the works can heighten viewers’ awareness to an unforgettable level – one that will mean the audience will leave the show not just noticing things they should have noticed before, but now actively looking for them.
(c) 2023 Malcolm Ryder