Some weeks ago I posted a glowing review of SAM's recent Kehinde Wiley show, which I loved. I stand by every word of that review, but I'd like to add some context which I find troubling enough to consider necessary.
I knew when I saw the show that Wiley didn't paint everything in the paintings, but the implications of the blasé attitude toward this enormous fact didn't hit me until after taking in the show a second time.
The most disappointing element is the lack of demand by writers, thinkers and viewers to know who made the paintings and how. When concept takes center stage in the appreciation of art, talent, skill, and craftsmanship get relegated to secondary levels of importance, which means the authors of that skill and how they accomplish their work becomes less consequential.
To look through every one of the books on Wiley at the show and have none of them even address the multiplicity of authorship question is not simply an insult to viewers (does SAM expect us to think a thirty-six year-old is this skilled and prolific in painting, glass, bronze, and marble?), but an embarrassment on the part of the authors and curators themselves. It guides the discussion into that tiring realm where concept is king, and craftsmanship is discussed only with superlatives because critics who have no experience in the art form can't talk about it in depth, and thus focus only on what they, and anyone else with extensive knowledge in realms besides painting and sculpture, can: content.
This divide becomes immediately apparent when listening to the difference between how tour guides talk when discussing art before vs. after the Modern period. Take a look at Fred Wiseman's mammoth fly-on-the-wall documentary National Gallery and listen to how the tour guides discuss Vermeer and Hans Holbein II. They talk about 1) craft and 2) how it expresses ideas. Tour guides of the Wiley show are saddled with the awkward task of discussing only the second part. I recall a particularly embarrassing moment at SAM wherein a viewer who happened to be a skilled stained-glass artist asked how a human hand could possibly accomplish the texture and shading of denim jeans on a single pane of glass, to which the poor tour guide had to reply that she had neither any idea how that was accomplished, nor who, or what, had accomplished it.
We can be blunt and overstate the point by quoting Tom Stoppard: "imagination without skill gives us modern art." But I argue the real villains in this case are not the artists but those who shape the discussion. Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word is instructive here. To forget that content and form are inextricably linked is to miss much of what is beautiful about art and the decisions artists make. We've heard the phrase "style over substance" leveled against films as a criticism; as I've written elsewhere, you generally only hear that phrase from people who aren't filmmakers. The style in a worthwhile art piece is the substance. Style, or form, is the language through which the content is relayed to a viewer. Form lives and dies on the strength of the artist's talent.
So what to make of Wiley, whom we know barely paints his own works. He declines journalist's visits to his studio, unless it's to have Martin Schoeller take a picture of him dabbing at a canvas while sitting atop a horse; tells reporters he doesn't want us to know to what degree his actual involvement is in the painting process, evading questions with coy comments about preserving his "secret sauce." Why? This is where he differs from Brueghel and Botticelli. No artist of great skill hides his skill behind a cloak of coy false modesty. If you didn't paint it, but your students did, it gets signed "School of Michelangelo." If you yourself did paint it, by God, you say so. We're talking about weeks or months of work. We're talking about the manly assertion of reputation and status here. In this world, if you've got it, you flaunt it. What artist in possession of such prodigious talent would leave their authorship in the murk?
Wiley's works are hardly diminished, in my opinion, by learning that he only paints touch-ups on the faces and some of the skin tones, that the figures and floral pattern work are painted by Chinese laborers, that the sculpture work is done by assistants, and that the stained glass works are created entirely by individuals skilled in that realm (using photographs by Wiley as a base). That even this information is difficult to come by is disappointing on the part of Wiley and SAM, but also the lack of outcry on the part of viewers.
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, Chihuly. Koons. Crewdson. I say close, but no Kehinde. They're not quite appropriate as corollaries; these artists and others like them, who heavily involve assistants, don't shroud their processes in secrecy, but hold it open for all to see and determine the worth of the works. For heaven's sake, we all know Koons doesn't make his own stuff.
There's another, more troubling reason why Wiley stands alone here. Unlike the folks above, Wiley's work is explicitly intended to counter the subjugation of marginalized (black) people in Western Art. Personally I love the idea. So far, so great. How does he accomplish this?
By subjugating and rendering nameless the marginalized (Asian) peoples who create these artworks for him.
He's eliminating subjugation one heroic step at a time, using: subjugation. Let's flip the races around and see how it sounds. The twenty-first century's wealthiest white artist creates enormous volumes of high-impact portraits of Asians, rescuing them from repression and facelessness, by farming out the work to nameless black laborers in developing countries worldwide. In gut-busting new levels of hubris, said artist refuses to credit or acknowledge the specific contributions of these black men and women in the name of preserving the mystique of his "secret sauce."
We're in the middle of what should be the biggest conversation in art right now.
Most items we consume are created by hardworking poor people across the world who get zilch recognition. As China continues to develop and labor costs gradually rise, many manufacturing entities are opening plants elsewhere in the continued search for cheap labor. I don't appreciate this exploitative trajectory, but I can understand it. Wiley plans to follow the trend, citing cost savings. However, he's in a financial position where this behavior is unnecessary. Kehinde Wiley is quite possibly the richest American artist of his generation. He doesn't need to be using social constructs of oppression in order to righteously attack social constructs of oppression. As one of many thousands of struggling artists of Asian descent, you can guess my perspective here.
No, the fact that Wiley is barely involved with the hands-on element of his final works is not the scandal. The scandal isn't even that the authorship is kept an unanswered question. It's that the laborers, painters, stained-glass workers and sculptors are kept nameless and repressed, and no one notices, or even thinks to ask about it.
That's the scandal.
Outsource to China, a detailed NY Magazine piece on Wiley, who candidly admits he often abandons his celebrated "street-casting" process.
Kehinde Wiley's Dilemma: How the Artist Painted Himself Into a Corner With His New Works. Ben Davis explores Wiley's portraits of women at Sean Kelly.
Background Considerations: Christian Frock considers the issues during Wiley's 2013 launch at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Nay Sayin': John James Anderson explores the degree to which Wiley "keeps it real."
Stop Lionizing Kehinde Wiley's Paintings. Stop Dismissing Them, Too, by our own Jen Graves.