Kehinde Wiley review – black souls sail between empowerment and exploitation

By Skye Sherwin

Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
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.

Clearly, the work's keynote, heroic gorgeousness, in a society that typecasts black men in police mugshots of the kind that inspired his early work, is a good and necessary thing. Yet, at his second London show, In Search of the Miraculous, a physical encounter with the paintings proves far from a straightforwardly edifying experience.

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