The Flies in Kehinde Wiley's Milk

by Vinson Cunningham


Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II, perhaps the most famous work by the artist Kehinde Wiley, is a portrait of Michael Jackson that was commissioned not long before the megastar’s death and unveiled not long after. The painting is a beat-by-beat paraphrase of Rubens’ portrait of King Philip: Wiley’s MJ sits atop a whitish, curly-maned horse and wears black and gold armor, duly ornate, reminiscent of his trademark late-eighties betasslement. Cherubs fly overhead, offering a wreath. Some countryside unfolds toward the horizon.

King Philip is as representative a specimen as any of Wiley’s signature style, which is easy enough to grasp, and then to recognize again and again as it makes the pop-culture rounds, on Empire and beyond: He poses hyper-contemporary figures — mostly black, mostly male, clad mostly in sweatsuits and bubble jackets and Timberland boots — in brazen imitation of the old masters. His subjects are set against intricate patterns of flowers and tapestries, or, as in Philip, against skillful approximations of the landscapes and cloakrooms that background the old portraits from which Wiley draws inspiration.

Wiley’s first career survey, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, which went up at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this year, traced the evolution of this hybrid style, beginning with its prehistory; early efforts like Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence), a sketch-like portrait of a businessman whose Afro has exploded into smoky tentacles, gave way to the bright, glossy numbers that have become Wiley’s stock-in-trade. Perhaps in answer to the increasingly loud — and somewhat fair — accusations of what a recent Village Voice review called a “deadening sameness” in Wiley’s work, there were hints, too, of a way forward: A series of bronze busts and stained glass windows pointed toward the potential for future applications of the artist’s core preoccupations, while a set of mini-portraits, after Memling, were the most uncluttered, intriguing items on display.

Accompanying many of the pieces were quick snippets of praise and analysis from curators, art-historians, and other Wiley-watchers. Largely, they echoed what has become at least half of the standard critical patter on the portraitist. Catherina Machada, the Seattle Art Museum’s contemporary art curator, says that the Ingres-inspired St. Anthony of Padua “prompts a conversation about portraiture as a vehicle for representations of power.” Morpheus, a flower-strewn reworking of Houdon’s sculpture, points, according to Yale’s Kobena Mercer, to “the potential for human identities to morph out of history and into new future possibilities.” Wiley’s own words also stick fairly closely to the script:

“[T]hat’s partly the success of my work — the ability to straddle both of those worlds, the ability to have a young black girl walk into the Brooklyn Museum and see paintings she recognizes not because of their art or historical influence but because of their inflection, in terms of colors, their specificity and presence.”

If reflection, recognition, representation — so often identified with Wiley’s work — comprised its entire attraction, I’d be grateful for its existence, in the same way that I’m grateful for the existence of, say, Tyler Perry. Mere existence is a real and valuable politics, one whose importance shouldn’t be underestimated. But this, for me, is where the difficulty starts with Wiley: If his paintings have any value as art qua art, that value lies in something else — his best paintings read as jokes.

A good joke is a kind of control, exerted backwards: The bit isn’t understood until the listener can see how punchline proceeds from premise, how premise, perhaps, proceeds from something small and hurt in the mind of the comic on the stage. There’s linearity, a narrative; despite its best efforts, visual art can’t really be said to narrate anything, not in the truest sense. But with Wiley’s work — maybe because it’s so surreal, so obviously from some plastic-coated alternate universe — you sense a kind of disoriented story structure. His funniest paintings almost ask for a caption.


The joke extends beyond any single portrait: This is where the other half of the rap on Wiley — that his oft-repeated style amounts to little more than a formula — comes in. His repetitiveness operates in a way not dissimilar from Chris Rock’s rhythmic punchlines — something like the chorus to a song, eventually revealing something that the Brooklyn Museum show bears out: Wiley has joined a long line of artists preoccupied with how being a black person among white people is not only difficult or isolating or a problem, but is also, more often than not, fucking hilarious.

Others have had their fun with the idea: In his semi-autobiographical summer-novel, Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead has his young narrator remember bar mitzvah season:

I was used to being the only black kid in the room — I was only there because I had met these assorted Abes and Sarahs and Dannys in a Manhattan private school, after all — but there was something instructive about being the only black kid at a bar mitzvah. Every bar or bat mitzvah should have at least one black kid with a yarmulke hovering on his Afro — it’s a nice visual joke, let’s just get that out of the way, but more important it trains the kid in question to determine when people in the corner of his eye are talking about him and when they are not…

…“Who’s that?” “Whisper whisper a friend of Andy’s from school.” “So regal and composed — he looks like a young Sidney Poitier.” “Whisper whisper or the son of an African Diplomat!”

That yarmulke, the crucial half of Whitehead’s “visual joke,” is like MJ’s steed in “King Philip” (or perhaps like the brocaded outfit, or like the angels trailing overhead, or like the countryside behind, or even like the deadpan museum wall from which the frame hangs, enabling everything). It is a piece of otherwise unremarkable context, suddenly sharpened and used to lead us through the stations of comedy’s cross: interest, recognition, surprise, release, repeat.

Once your eye lifts its way past hooves and muscle, spurs and gloves, spread across the enormous canvas of King Philip, it alights on Michael’s face, so absurdly and somehow perfectly out of place. Then you laugh.

There’s something funny about Kanye West, let’s admit it. It’s not just his long history of ill-timed socio-political and pop-cultural commentary; not just items like that recent gif of him at the Bulls game, forcing his face down the swatch-scale from delight to diffidence. No, there’s something else, something more fundamental, born from his vast, naked, unquenchable desire to fit in. This seat-at-the-table fixation lurks behind many of his most emotional (and often perversely justifiable) fits of pique: He is miffed about never having won a Grammy against a white artist, even though he possesses more than twenty of the things, and, having sold uncountable pairs of Nikes — then auto-tuned a good-bye letter to the company, gone for Adidas — he stands pounding at the gates of whichever European fashion house will have him, even for an internship. Thus Kanye’s anguished response when, during an appearance on the radio show Sway in the Morning, the show’s eponymous host suggested that he go it alone, Fendis and Pradas be damned:

Sway: But why don’t you empower yourself…and do it yourself?

Kanye: How, Sway?

Sway: Take a few steps back, and —

Kanye: You ain’t got the answers man! You ain’t got the answers! You ain’t got the answers, Sway! I been doing this more than you! You ain’t got the answers! You ain’t been doing the education! You ain’t spend 13 million dollars of your own money trying to empower yourself!

West, like Wiley’s smirking figures, knows that the game is played within the borders of foreign frames.

It is in this way, through a loud and unashamed — and, yes, sometimes comic — insistence on his own belonging, dissonances be damned, that Kanye West remains America’s lone true rock star, if by “rock star” we mean the raw and awkward forerunner of what eventually becomes normal: His odd theme, so loudly pronounced, has cleared the way for infinite variation. His person and positioning, somewhat like his music, have given others the cover to create something startling and new, but also so organically arrived at that it’s already all but taken for granted: namely, the weird fact that, here in the mid-twenty-teens, the iconography of black musical production has completed a five-hundred-year life cycle, from field holler to Fader. The oft-cited borrowing, or theft, or sublimation, or whatever, of properties ranging from the twelve-bar blues to the sixteen-bar rap verse has finally, and somewhat miraculously, culminated in a pop landscape lorded over by black artists. Not just artists, either, but, in the popular imagination, auteurs. Musical Negroes have at long last joined prestige TV show-runners on the list of fortunates whose output is regarded with the kind of reverence and patient befuddlement once reserved for heavy books and quiet movies.

The music-critical media just months ago devoted itself, in an impressively sustained few moments of collective focus, to the long awaited return of the R&B; singer-songwriter D’Angelo, who hadn’t released an album since Hillary Clinton last occupied the White House. His light-headed, lyrically incomprehensible Black Messiah, released on what seemed like a whim in the wake of the troubles in Ferguson and beyond, was treated like a particularly important snippet of Talmud, combed and re-combed for whatever insights — music-theoretical or hyper-contemporary — it might offer.

A few months later, it was Kendrick Lamar’s turn to satisfy our current critical culture’s hunger for big, meaning-laden objects to devour, digest, and ultimately leave it its wake. Same abrupt, surprise-ish release date, same intensely attentive reading, plus a meta-conversation about the role of the generational savior in hip-hop mythology — a role which, for better or worse, Lamar appears lab-engineered to inhabit. But, as Jay Caspian Kang outlined in an incisive essay in the New York Times Magazine, Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly suffered somewhat under the weight of the designation, and, perhaps, of the suddenly awed tones of the (mostly white) writerly corps tasked with interpreting his effort. Taking up the tools of Western modernism — denseness, disjointedness, impenetrability — Kendrick largely left behind humor, a crucial tool passed down by the rap messiahs who came before him.

Which brings us back to Kanye West, through whom rage and isolation are almost always transubstantiated into hilarity. Consider a few lines from Kanye’s “New Slaves,” punctuating a verse heralded by, well, himself as the greatest rap verse “OF ALL TIME IN THE HISTORY OF RAP MUSIC, PERIOD”:

They prolly all in the Hamptons

Braggin’ ‘bout what they made

Fuck you and your Hampton house

I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse

Came on her Hampton blouse

And in her Hampton mouth

This bit of blues-descended overstatement would do well as a setting for Kehinde Wiley’s inevitable portrait of West: Imagine Kanye, skin asmolder in purples and blues, dressed in sightless garden-party white, behind him the slightly menacing striped trim of a Hamptons lawn. A shingled house somewhere in the distance, off-center. An UberCHOPPER hanging overhead. Kanye threatening to rip through the canvas and embarrass you in front of your guests.

There’s something to learn from the fact that Ralph Ellison, America’s great artist of racial encounter, also happens to be one of our funniest writers. He squeezed infinite amusement, sometimes brutal, from the optics of isolation: A man writing prologues from the black of a cave; little boys watched boxing for coins, on and on. In Juneteenth, the posthumously published section of his never-finished second novel, Ellison performs a deft reversal, then re-reversal, of the theme, tracing in Falkneresque stream-of-consciousness the life and trials of a white boy raised and trained to preach by a black tent revivalist, taught to think himself a Negro, only to become, later in life, a race-baiting U.S. Senator.

In his short essay A Special Message to Subscribers, Ellison describes the subconscious process that led to the creation of Invisible Man’s protagonist. A voice, he says, comes streaming into his ears while he sits at his desk in Vermont, the voice of a comedian in blackface, calling himself an “invisible man” from the famous Apollo stage.

Here’s Ellison:

He had described himself as “invisible” which…suggested a play on words inspired by a then popular sociological formulation which held that black Americans saw dark days because of their “high visibility.” Translated into the ironic mode of Negro American idiom this meant that God had done it all with his creative tar brush back when He had said, “Let there be light,” and that Negroes suffered discrimination and were penalized not because of their individual infractions of the rules which give order to American society, but because they, like flies in the milk, were just naturally more visible than white folk.

Yes: flies in the milk. In Kehinde Wiley’s painted world, the textiles and the landscapes are the milk, the hip-hop kids the swimming flies — not drowning, but cracking up.

Photos by Libby Rosof (12)