The American artist puts race at the center of a dialogue with European landscape tradition, but the fashion-shooting aesthetic doesn’t quite work
Black Londoners, recruited from the streets of Soho, are filmed in the hostile and all-consuming white of the snowy Norwegian countryside. It is a matter-of-fact, if rudimentary, metaphor through which Wiley places race at the center of a dialogue with European landscape tradition.
American artist Kehinde Wiley uses the visual impact of black and white to stunning effect in his six-channel film. Foreplay, the immersive centerpiece of his exhibition at the National Gallery.
The film is accompanied by a group of paintings reminiscent of Bosch’s ship of fools (around 1490-1500) and two of Caspar David Friedrich’s most famous paintings.
Bosch’s allegorical painting pillories the morally aborted; In Wiley’s reinterpretation, a tree crowns a small boat manned by a shockingly ill-equipped and chaotic group of young black men and women. Traditional iconography is brought into the present as migrants forced to risk sea crossings fuel a subversion of traditional oil paintings and honor the heroic journeys of myth and legend.
Man’s struggle with nature takes on triumphant form in Friedrich’s epitome of romanticism, The wanderer over the Nebel sea (circa 1818). In Wiley’s reworking, skin color has a transformative effect, his Black Wanderer a symbol not of dominance and transcendence but of exclusion, expulsion, colonialism and enslavement.
The shift in meaning brought about by racial differences is uncomfortable, but real emotional power is wasted in its execution. Wiley’s flaming skies strive for the sublime, but the photorealism and bright colors instead achieve a deliberately commercial aesthetic that echoes David LaChapelle’s fashion photography.
Running at 30 minutes, the film is an opportunity to further develop the character’s romantic motif in the landscape. The images’ camp glamor matures into something heavier as characters stumble around in the snow, disoriented as if they’ve fallen from the sky – an impression reinforced by the grossly inadequate clothing that leaves them shivering terribly in the approaching blizzard. Excerpts from Wordsworth, Emerson and Thoreau are read by an actor, and a stirring cinematic score strives for grandeur and even universality.
But as we watch a smile slowly morph into a frozen grimace, agonizing to watch, the piece’s knowing elegance reigns supreme.
By turning the venerable theme of humanity’s struggle against raging nature into a metaphor for the struggles waged by generations of blacks against their white oppressors, Wiley turns the lexicon of western art against itself. the impeccable clothes are an essential part – after all, it is quite normal for heroes of art to wear absurdly inappropriate clothing.
In this way Wiley ensures the dignity of his subjects, but paradoxically the aesthetics of the fashion shots are also a barrier to emotional depth. The film is exquisitely beautiful, but a project of such importance needs to be more provocative.
Until April 18, 2022