I Tried to Catch People Saying Offensive Stuff at the Kehinde Wiley Exhibit

March 19, 2015 | Liam Mathews

Last week, the Village Voice posted an offensive and racist review of Kehinde Wiley’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, A New Republic, by art critic Jessica Dawson. Dawson called some of the paintings “pervy” and “predatory” for their sexualized depictions of handsome black men, and misinterpreted the political implications of the art, writing, “What does it mean to put a young black man on a horse and call him Napoleon? If it isn’t dangling a fantasy and false hope, then at least it implies that young urban blacks are in desperate need of uplift. You call that empowerment?”

The piece was immediately met with several rebuttals, including one from Hyperallergic’s Jillian Steinhauer, who called the review racist and homophobic and “truly one of the most bizarre and poor excuses for art criticism I’ve read in a very long time.”

Dawson’s review and Steinhauer’s response confirmed a suspicion I had that white people are disproportionately offended and threatened by Wiley’s accomplished work. I wanted to go to the exhibit and eavesdrop on people to see if they volunteered any offensive statements. I was curious if Dawson’s interpretation reflects the average white person’s knee-jerk response (full disclosure: I’m a straight white man).

16480889879_6048f70d62_kSupport the rural population and serve 500 million peasants; Photo: Karl Steel/Flickr

For the record, here’s exhibit curator Eugenie Tsai’s comment on what Wiley does:

Wiley’s deliberate riff on this art-historical masterpiece skillfully engineers a collision between past and present that raises questions about race, gender roles, and the politics of representation. In this regard, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps is emblematic of Wiley’s artistic enterprise. Since 2001, his practice has been based on transforming historical portraits originally commissioned from Old Masters, intended to convey the status and power of the sitter, into monumental contemporary paintings that, by placing black subjects front and center, draw attention to their absence from canonical works of art history and from our cultural narratives.

On Wednesday afternoon, I went to the museum with the intention to eavesdrop (not ask questions; I had no interest in entrapping anyone) on whoever was at the exhibit to hear what they had to say about the work.

It’s difficult to eavesdrop on people in a museum. People talk in reverent whispers. Those whispers echo through the gallery and turn into mush. It’s almost impossible to understand what people are saying unless you’re standing right next to them and listening intently, which kind of defeats the point of eavesdropping. Nevertheless, I was able to make out a few snatches of conversation, and what I heard pleasantly surprised me.

16590522846_b02c5652cc_zWiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps; Photo: Garret Ziegler/Flickr

Wiley is the star, but he has a supporting cast: right outside of the elevator on the fifth floor are a handful of works by artists associated with the Black Arts Movement, which a plaque describes as “the cultural wing of the Black Power Movement.” There are paintings by Dindga McCannon and Faith Ringgold, co-founders of the Where We At collective, which challenged the marginalization of female black artists by both the mainstream art world and male-centric black arts organizations. There’s a screenprint by Cleveland Bellow that reproduces a photo over on an orange backdrop, creating a Warholian pop art effect. Instead of Marilyn Monroe or a soup can, however, the photo is of George Jackson, a Black Panther and militant leftist. These works, presented just before entering the Wiley exhibit, give his work a historical context. Black artists have been questioning the canon long before Wiley came along. I wonder how threatened Dawson feels by these pieces.

On a couch in this room, three teenagers, each of a different race, were being loud. A middle-aged white lady security guard walked in, eyed them suspiciously, and then walked away.

The first room of the exhibit is stained glass, busts and Byzantine-style wood panel portraits. When I was there, everyone was pretty quiet, squinting at the small details of the paintings and photographing the striking stained glass figures. I heard a middle-aged black man looking at the portraits say to his wife, “I think it’s ceramic,” to which she responded “go see, it’ll tell you,” and directed him toward the informational note. A white male and Asian female art student pair recognized the book Eric Murphy was holding (Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church).

Next up was a vestibule holding some of Wiley’s early paintings and a work of video art. It was quiet. People were watching the video. I moved on.

I was now in the gallery that held the huge portraits that Wiley is famous for. The two most erotically provocative paintings, Femme piquée par un serpent and St. Andrew, are the first seen and the immediately to the left, respectively, in the first room of the gallery. St. Andrew, the painting that so scandalized Dawson, was mostly left alone.

3035307001_cae8ac25fa_zFemme piquée par un serpent, Photo: libby rosof/Flickr

This high-ceilinged, hard-surfaced gallery is almost impossible to eavesdrop in unless people are talking in normal-to-loud voices, which rarely happens. I heard one woman say, “I can’t take the eyes” in regards to Support the rural population and serve 500 million peasants.

The last gallery contained Wiley’s portraits of women. I again encountered the art students, who were comparing the flat, cartoonish backdrop of Mrs. Siddons to the more natural greenery of Princess Victoire of Saxe Coburg Gotha.

“It’s cool-looking,” a young fellow concluded.

In a carpeted alcove off the main room, I listened to an Asian man and a white woman argue about whether or not she could bring a more worldly perspective to her work than Vincent Van Gogh, who apparently never went anywhere.

Back in the main room, another young white man remarked to his friend, “I love these colors” while viewing St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness. Just behind them, a young black woman was explaining something to her white friend.

“It’s tributary, but still…” she said, which wasn’t the right word, but I understood. I followed them to Judith and Holofernes, a portrait of a black woman holding the severed head of a white woman. It’s the most violent and confrontationally racial of the paintings, and I was hoping to hear how the white friend reacted. But they continued discussing in quiet, measured tones. The white girl listened while her black friend explained and contextualized. They seemed to be discussing art history more than anything else. It felt almost utopian.

I went back to the room with St. Andrew. A white professor was lecturing his class about The Male Gaze.

“I don’t know about his sexual preferences,” he said. He asked one of the students, who apparently was a big Wiley fan, if she knew.

“I think he’s gay,” she said.

wileystandrewSt. Andrew

“Well, certainly this room indicates that,” he said. This was the most questionable thing I heard anyone say, and, on balance, isn’t that bad. Speculating about a stranger’s sexuality is in poor taste, sure, but that information is absent from the exhibit’s promotional material. The exhibit does not categorize Wiley’s work as gay art, although the paintings do indicate that. Discussing Wiley’s sexuality in this context is not merely gossip. It’s a lens through which to read the art. So while this professor maybe doesn’t win points for sensitivity, he’s at least trying.

I couldn’t leave without hearing someone say something about St Andrew. While standing in front of the painting, I broke my own rule, and talked to the young black man standing next to me.

“The reviewer from the Village Voice was scandalized by this painting,” I said.

“Interesting,” he said.

I asked if he saw how it could be offensive.

“Me personally? I’m not offended,” he said.

My thesis was busted, thankfully! It’s much better to hear people of all races discussing the art itself, its technique and historical context, than saying ignorant shit. Perhaps people willing to go to an art museum to see a Kehinde Wiley show for fun on a Wednesday afternoon are a tolerant and educated group, but it was refreshing nonetheless to eavesdrop on people and mostly hear thoughtful stuff.