Monday, August 8, 2016

The Hard Part

I'm going to call it like I see it. Gordon trumps Kehinde, hands down.

Friends were in from out of town, so we met up to see VMFA's summer blockbuster, "Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic," joining an unusually diverse crowd doing the same on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon.

And by diverse, I mean a trio of black women eagerly looking for more information in the exhibition catalog as they discussed several pieces and a couple of white women who blandly observed, "I love the background of these things."

Don't get me wrong, I completely appreciate what Wiley is going for by inserting people of color - all gorgeous individuals with not a blemish among them  - into compositions from traditional European (read: white) paintings and adding densely patterned overlays and backgrounds to them.

Not to mention the frames which were as much works of art as the paintings.

Without a doubt, the bronze busts were my favorite part of the show, particularly the one of a man in a dashiki with a pick in his hair, a monumental sculpture of black power and beauty.

Like a dutiful museum guest, I read about Wiley's process and was intrigued. He recruited everyday people off the street to model, then asked them to choose a painting from an art history book for him to recreate using their face and modern day clothes.

The randomly-chosen models made fascinating choices in some cases, choosing to be depicted as religious men, as part of biblical scenes, even as a white slave. One of the most interesting facets was the gender play throughout, men depicted as women and vice versa.

But there was also a soul-less quality to the work, a fact undoubtedly due to Wiley's large workshop crews who help bring the paintings to fruition. The figures had a photo-realistic quality that may have been the result of Wiley working from photographs of his models, but also made them feel more like copies than originals.

Where were the brushstrokes, the painterly qualities that give dimension to a painting? Granted, black skin tones were beautifully represented in shades from purple-hued to golden brown, but the overall effect came across like a highly decorative airbrushed picture.

The art historian in the group was disappointed that the information cards next to the paintings revealed little more than the title, year and painting's owner. Why was there no contextualization, explanation, inside scoop about the subject, source or method?

Shallow and disappointingly vapid, that's how the whole thing felt, like a Twitter feed trying to replace an actual book when what you seek is meaningful information.

Give me Gordon Parks' iconic black and white (occasionally color) photographs documenting his high school class revisited and there's some meat to chew on. The exhibition's information cards provide a satisfying backstory and update for every Fort Scott face looking out at you.

Since VMFA re-opened, they've been reminding us regularly that it's our art, a technicality which I embrace whole-heartedly.

But like anything I consider mine - books, clothes, music, friends - there are some that give me more pleasure than others. Those I choose to revisit repeatedly.

Life's too short to waste on the rest.

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