Perhaps no other contemporary artist has explored the history of Western painting as much as Kehinde Wiley. Wiley, who is now perhaps most famous for his portrayal of Barack Obama, has previously produced paintings directly in response to the National Gallery’s masterpieces – he chose other African-American artists Sanford Biggers and Rashid Johnson in a revamp of Holbein’s Ambassadors, for example. It is therefore ideally suited to the National’s ongoing engagement with living artists.
You might think, then, that Wiley’s new exhibition at the gallery would bring together canvases that tell the story of his project which has now spanned two decades to take the kind of grandiose, equestrian portrait that adorns the walls of the National and replaces his royal, noble and ecclesiastical subjects with ordinary blacks that Wiley encountered on the streets in various places around the world, including Dalston.
But while there are direct answers to the historical works in this two-room exhibition, there are only five canvases. The centerpiece is a six-screen video installation, which gives the show its title. The work continues a project that has preoccupied Wiley in recent years: to riff on the history of the sublime seascape. Three of the works are seascapes in a series that depict contemporary figures from Haiti and Dakar, Senegal – where Wiley has a home and studio – on rough seas. By reformulating the marine imagery of JMW Turner, Winslow Homer and others with black protagonists from these specific places, he inevitably reframes this area of ââart history, so that these paintings evoke injustices past and present: the historical traumas of slavery and colonialism and the contemporary plight of refugees.
Ship of Fools II is in part based on the painting of the same name by Hieronymous Bosch, which takes a satirical twist on the follies of powerful 15th-century figures by throwing them adrift, lost at sea. But the Senegalese people Wiley portrays are the victims of political madness. Two of the figures are in the water, amid the swelling waves, while the others seem to scream and signal beyond the frame of the painting – a cry for help that clearly alludes to ThÃ©odore GÃ©ricault’s Raft of the Medusa. , a story of people abandoned following a shipwreck. Turner’s fearsome slave ship, once shown in these same pieces, was on Wiley’s mind as well.
It’s all powerful and fascinating, but I struggle with Wiley’s technique in these works. They are clearly deliberately artificial – sets for their subjects, the color amplified perhaps in reference to sublime American painting, the light falling as it never would in studies from life. But that means they don’t settle down as compositions, which interrupts their credibility. They just don’t sit well.
More compelling are two images inspired by the key historical painter who haunts the show – the German romantic Caspar David Friedrich. Wiley reinterprets Friedrich’s most famous works – Wanderer on the Sea of ââFog and Chalk Cliffs on RÃ¼gen – and by placing blacks in Friedrich’s compositions, he consciously subverts the imperial and colonial context and the spirit of patriotism in which they were carried out. In other words, Wiley argues that while nature is awesome in Friedrich’s vision, so are paintings of white man’s conquest of nature.
To underscore Wiley’s claim that these are as much power paintings as they are landscape paintings, he dramatically expands their scale, so that they are the size of large history paintings rather than intimate landscapes. Friedrich’s canvases weren’t even three feet tall – Wiley’s reinterpretations are nearly four feet tall, stretching almost to the limit of the National’s wall space.
Unlike Friedrich’s original painting, in which the figures, including the artist himself, are on the periphery of his composition, gazing out at the majestic land and sea that dominate the image, in Chalk’s version of Wiley Cliffs, his two figures are playing a game of applause in the center of the painting, and one of them is looking directly at us. It’s a look of challenge: I’m here.
Applause plays also feature in a charming sequence in the video installation, The Prelude, as four of Wiley protagonists type a cake in the snow-capped Norwegian wilderness, their laughs and slaps constantly moving across six screens. . This sense of innocence in the midst of nature is drawn from another key cultural inspiration: William Wordsworth. Wiley’s title alludes to Wordsworth’s poem of the same name, but it’s another poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, which reflects on the child’s ability to respond to divine nature, which is particularly relevant here.
There are beautiful shots of the performers’ hands as they play, and Wiley explores this contrast, of black skin against the white landscape, throughout the film. In the catalog accompanying the exhibition, he describes “the weight and volume of whiteness” and this is one of the film’s many metaphors – Wiley says he connects the Norwegian wilderness, the snow blizzards that overwhelm and brutalize these black bodies, with white supremacy. âThe whiteness becomes a metaphor for a cage,â he says.
I watched the movie twice and was mesmerized both times, but there is one glaring flaw: Niles Luther’s supercharged score. It disrupts the mood too often and feels more suited to David Attenborough’s natural history films. It’s too grandiose for the intricacies of Wiley’s installation. I would like to see the work without.
Yet, quite unexpectedly, with this film and his previous Narrenschiff, Wiley reveals himself to be a distinctive and poetic filmmaker. You might be disappointed with the relative lack of paintings in this exhibition, but you might also come away with a better appreciation of the artist.
From December 10 to April 18, nationalgallery.org.uk