Contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley’s latest exhibit opened last Saturday at Chelsea’s Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City.
With An Economy of Grace, Wiley – celebrated for his evocative portraits of black male street models classically posed against vibrant floral backdrops – offers a sumptuous feast for the eyes and an addendum to the political and aesthetic explorations of his earlier works, this time touting a cast of female subjects – a first for the artist.
At a glance – grand, striking, and celebratory – the portraits featured in An Economy of Grace seem to transcend sociopolitical commentary, inviting the viewer to simply luxuriate in the singular and unassailable beauty of the portraits, to get lost in the luminosity the artist achieves in rendering the rich brown skin of his subjects, the vibrancy and precision of the graphic patterns that envelope their figures, but, on closer examination, it becomes clear – in the world Wiley is creating, beauty is only the vessel.
Set against lush botanical patterns that convey a discreet political dialogue in their seemingly British-colonial, Regency period inspiration, Wiley’s subjects illuminate the canvas, their beauty exalted in custom gowns designed in collaboration with Ricardo Ticsi (creative Director of Givenchy) as they take their seat in the cool, white halls of art history.
Modeled after portraits of society women rendered by Jacques-Louis David, Thomas Gainsborough and John Singer Sargent, each portrait explores ideals of feminine beauty, the concept of grace and upon whom in society it is bestowed, and ultimately gives status to the beauty and valor of black women, a subject historically marginalized in society, the arts, and the making of western aesthetics.
The impact the choice of female subjects has on the work is remarkable, stripping it of the jarring irony and striking juxtaposition on which his male portraits rely (perhaps, in depicting women – black, white, or otherwise – in graceful poses, amid decorative backdrops brings the viewer slightly closer to the Western understanding of femininity, art and beauty with which we are most comfortable? )
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