Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Kehinde Wiley believes in miracles.

Kehinde Wiley's 'In Search of the Miraculous', spread across each side of Old Burlington Street in both branches of the Stephen Friedman Gallery, was an unexpected delight. The Los Angeles born, New York based, portrait painter has been gathering plaudits for some time now and on being presented with my first in depth experience of his work it was easy to see why.

Despite the double location it was a relatively small show, just nine paintings and one three channel film, but demonstrated, quite ably, what it is that Wiley does so well - colour. Look at the blues, greens, and turquoises of the sea. Look at the rendering of light on the dark skin of his fishermen subjects. The clouds, the storms - these works could almost be updates on the seascapes of JMW Turner.

Fisherman Upon a Lee-shore, in Squally Weather (Andielo Pierre) (2017)

Fishermen at Sea (Jean-Frantz Laguerre and Andielo Pierre) (2017)

Previously, in his work, Wiley has gone for solo portraits of bold, confident black men and women that would sit quite happily in a gallery across from the works of Hassan Hajjaj. Moving away from Hajjaj's style and his debt to Andy Warhol, Wiley has used this show to look much further back to the art historical painting of Jacques-Louis David or the nautical scenes of Winslow Homer.

But he's also making a political point too. He's taken local young men from the rough areas of remote island nations as his subject and then imbued them with a dignity they've often not been granted - and, indeed, is often given to those much less deserving.

The show takes its title from performance artist Bas Jan Ader's 1975 artwork (also 'In Search of the Miraculous') in which the Dutch artist attempted a solo Atlantic crossing and was never seen again, though his boat, Guppy 13, was discovered by Spanish fisherman floating 100 nautical miles south west of Ireland.

Tempest Off a Mountainous Coast (Patrick Laguerre) (2017)

The Herring Net (Zakary Antoine and Samedy Pierre Louisson) (2017)

Of course you don't need to know this, or understand that Ship of Fools was inspired by a painting of the same name by Dutch painter of hellish scenes Hieronymus Bosch, to appreciate Wiley's work. You can easily sink into their rich colours (the red skies of The Herring Net, the azure waves of The Fog Warning, even the white sails of Ships on a Stormy Sea). With this level of technical virtuosity mixed with his contemporary appeal it's no surprise that Wiley has been commissioned to produce a portrait of Barack Obama for Washington DC's Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Ships on a Stormy Sea (Jean Julio Placide) (2017)

The Fog Warning (Jasmine Gracout) (2017)

Ship of Fools (2017)

Fishermen Upon a Lee-shore, in Squally Weather (Zakary Antoine) (2017)

Fishermen Upon a Lee-shore, in Squally Weather (Zakary Antoine and Nelson Noel) (2017)

Truth be told, the video ain't quite as good as the paintings. It's very relaxing looking out at these slow moving seascapes and listening to Maxim Budnick's score, and C.C.H.Pounder (Avatar, ER, The Shield) reading French modernist philosopher Michel Foucault's 'Madness and Civilization' and Martinician revolutionary existentialist Frantz Fanon's 'The Wretched of the Earth' but that's probably not what Wiley was going for.

Nevertheless, that's one very small misstep in a show with an alarmingly good hit rate. Wiley shows that those living difficult lives in troubled conditions can be heroes just as much as the great and good that decorate so many of the walls of Europe's national galleries. That in itself would've made the show worth a look but the fact that many of these works are so aesthetically pleasing makes it worth a second look and only serves to underline and italicise the message that fuels Wiley's work. Obama (or whoever chose for him) chose well.

Narrenschiff (2017)

Narrenschiff (2017)

Narrenschiff (2017)

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