Think of the average New York street fair, the kind they hold in every neighborhood every weekend of every summer. The kind that shows off the locals a little.
Then, go inside and see the artist. Always contending with millennia
The Great Works
Depending on the neighborhood, the street fair draws tourists, mostly local tourists from another neighborhood or another borough.
The artist Kehinde Wiley foregrounds his contentions.
For his most famous paintings
He picked up men off the streets
Brothers from the hood
To browse art books in his studio
And pick a historical painting to imitate in a pose
While he takes photos.
He studies the photos and the original artwork for his own imitative efforts
Employing period materials
Gold leaf, stained glass, bronze
But most of all
Hand-mixed, richly tinged oils
In jeweled and metal tones
To build massive
(Or at least heavy)
Odes of admiration and desire
To the original art
To the men
To the brands they wear
The New Balance
To the game of acquisition
And of being acquired.
I live near a Brooklyn restaurant named Buttermilk Channel, on Court and 9th Streets.
It serves pricey, fancified Southern cooking.
Popularized by Jay-Z and Beyonce, who rang in a recent new year there, Buttermilk Channel draws crowds of Sunday brunchers, on-trend young adults and GOCs (glitterati of color) from all over the city.
They step out of their borough taxis in visibly branded, crayon-colored kicks, stilettos, lids, and shades.
I don’t love the restaurant’s food, but I do love the outifits. I have my own collection of candy-colored kicks, shades, and lids.
Wiley’s work is a similar status symbol, having been similarly popularized by J-Bey and the addictive soap opera Empire. And on the last Thursday in May, late hours at the Brooklyn Museum, “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” transformed the Game
A street fair recalling a Sunday on Court and 9th Streets.
Buttermilk Channel plus local families.
Not the kind of crowd that most museum shows draw
But exactly the kind of crowd that museums say they want to draw.
Diverse, youthful, yet intergenerational.
Of the diverse, youthful group who saw the show with me, one of us wasn’t feeling it. Too derivative of the canon. Too simplistic. Wiley needs to find ways to grow beyond the work that is making him rich and famous. If he doesn’t do that, he could hit a ceiling very soon.
One of us, who used to work as Wiley’s studio assistant years ago, pointed out the level of technical mastery involved in the work. If nothing else, they were works of sheer beauty, elevating underrepresented people to the level of portrayal historically reserved for emperors, Saints, and Angels.
One of us said that the work was not focused on friction; it wasn’t about sticking it to the canon. Rather, the canonical reference was a frame for many kinds of people to not walk on by, not to dismiss or glance, but to linger.
Think of going to a museum. There’s a lot of work to see. A lot of stimuli. To pause before an artwork is significant. To see an artwork cause several people take a moment or two to wonder–it is significantly more significant. It’s about more than your response, it becomes the response of a group. A community even. If the group is historically under-acknowledged and over-abused, it is a response well worth cultivating.
before whipping out their phones and snapping a pic, maybe even posting it online, before re-joining the street fair.