Kehinde Wiley is selling kitsch in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO — I’m noticing an interesting phenomenon in art right now: Just as the rise of the fast-food industry had the gradual effect of reminding many people what they love about preparing and eating real food, AI-generated art is sharpening our taste for art handmade by feeling and breathing artists. Moreover, the same tendency is exposing weaknesses in a lot of the art made before the latest AI surge — precisely because it looks like it could have been generated by AI.

Kehinde Wiley’s art is a great example.

Hey, DALL-E: Make me an image that puts beautiful young Black people wearing sneakers and branded streetwear into poses borrowed from Old Master paintings. Use bright colors and raking light. Add in floral or vegetable decorative backgrounds that look great from a distance.

Now make me a whole show using the same formula.

Now build me an outlandishly successful career.

Of course, Wiley doesn’t use artificial-intelligence models such as DALL-E to generate images. But in another sense, his art is algorithmic. It’s probabilistic. It’s art that leads with the concept, caring little for the sanctity and surprise of intuitive decision-making.

Wiley is best-known as the official portraitist of President Barack Obama. He was once described (in GQ magazine) as “a self-styled Noah … called by calamity — the world’s museums, flooded with whiteness — to bring the art world a salvational brownness.”

If that’s what he’s selling, there’s no question the museums have bought it. Wiley can walk today into almost any well-funded museum in the country and see his work on prominent display — usually in the Old Master galleries, where his paintings of Black people in heroic poses are offered as evidence that the curators are getting with the times.

An exhibition of Wiley’s paintings and sculptures recently opened at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The pieces extend a body of work that dates back to 2008, reimagining — often with a homoerotic undercurrent — the dead or fallen figures in such paintings as Hans Holbein’s “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb.” But most were made in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020.

Some of the paintings are billboard-size, while others are smaller. They and the sculptures are displayed in dark, crypt-like galleries, illuminated by spotlights. All show contemporary young Black men and women — some African, some American — in poses that suggest death but also sleep, grief, ecstasy. The subjects wear fashionable, branded clothes and sneakers. One holds an iPhone. But the poses are taken from Old Master paintings. The decorative backgrounds — Wiley calls them “botanical filigree” — are vegetal and floral.

Wiley describes the paintings in the show as “heartbreaking” — and in some ways they are. The exhibition is as close to pure kitsch as any museum has mounted since 2003, when the Getty commissioned and displayed Bill Viola’s “Emergence,” the veteran video artist’s slow-motion footage of actors “reenacting” Christ’s resurrection.

If kitsch is your thing, good news: On Wiley’s website, you can buy reproductions of the images in the form of $250 limited-edition skateboard decks made from “100% sustainably sourced hard rock maple.” Net proceeds support Black Rock Senegal, a high-end artist-in-residence program Wiley has set up in Senegal (a second, bigger residency is planned for Calabar, Nigeria).

AI is intelligent: It’s right there in the name. Wiley, too, is an intelligent, articulate artist who has received medals and honors from the State Department, the French government and Harvard University. Born in 1977, he is the son of an African American linguistics major and a Nigerian architecture student who met at UCLA. Wiley’s father, the architecture student, returned to Nigeria when his mother gave birth to Kehinde and his twin brother, Taiwo. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles before studying art at the San Francisco Art Institute, then Yale University.

He has taken this show’s title, “An Archaeology of Silence,” from writings by the late French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. The works in it debuted in Italy during the 2022 Venice Biennale and traveled to the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. After San Francisco, where it has already been seen by several hundred thousand people, the show will travel to Houston, Miami and Minneapolis.

The exhibition’s paintings and sculptures are described on Wiley’s website as “beautiful elegies” and “monuments to endurance and perseverance in the face of savagery.” They transcend “the mere corporeal” to push into “the realm of spiritual icons, of martyrs and saints.”

But it’s sad: Instead of revealing unknown depths, all this sophistication, all these grand claims swarm on the surface, as in high-end advertising.

Everyone knows that advertising can be enormously sophisticated: ironic, self-aware, funny and so on. But in the end, it’s about selling stuff. Wiley, too, is selling stuff. (“I wouldn’t even say that art is the greatest thing that Kehinde will accomplish before the Lord promotes him,” his mother recently told the New Yorker’s Julian Lucas. “I see him as a great entrepreneur.”)

What he’s selling is kitsch.

Kitsch, like pornography, tends to elude definition; often, it feels like the best we can say is that we know it when we see it. But the recently deceased Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” offered an indelible description. “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession,” Kundera wrote. “The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!”

“It is the second tear,” he concluded, “that makes kitsch kitsch.”

Kitsch, in other words, is rooted in emotional cliché (the sweetness of children running on the grass, despair about living in a society riven by inequities). It is, at the same time, self-congratulatory (how nice!) and presumptuous. The presumption is that everyone feels the same way as you. Kitsch is a bully.

The idea behind Wiley’s work, obviously, is admirable. It’s that European history painting and portraiture have functioned as a kind of propaganda, helping to entrench the power of a small White elite. Black people have been excluded, demeaned and subjugated in this same tradition, in a pattern that both mirrors and reinforces inequities in society at large.

Wiley is by no means the only Black artist trying to disrupt this historical pattern by painting contemporary Black people in poses that recall and subvert Old Master and 19th-century paintings. Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, Yinka Shonibare, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye all do similar things — just better. Better because they don’t work to a formula; they welcome accidents, use intuition, embrace ambiguity and paint from the heart.

“If anything ever does work in my case,” the painter Francis Bacon once said, “it works from that moment when consciously I don’t know what I’m doing.” Wiley’s art doesn’t work because he never doesn’t know what he’s doing. His conceits are Instagram-ready gambits. They’re moves in a strategic game.

His paintings and sculptures are based on photographs. For his sculptures, which feature prominently at the de Young, his studio assistants use software to combine photographs of his subjects — usually strangers solicited on the street — into three-dimensional renderings, subsequently printed in polymer clay.

The design of the paintings, meanwhile, is outsourced to a graphic designer who follows Wiley’s instructions using Photoshop. Assistants in his studios in New York, Beijing and Dakar, Senegal, then trace the results onto canvas. Specialist painters fill in different parts — clothing, botany, birds. One long-serving supervising assistant (she described herself to the New Yorker as Wiley’s “hand, almost like a human printer”) ensures that the end results meet the required standard. Everything in each painting, save the figure, is finished by the time Wiley applies his brushes.

Perhaps inevitably then, the completed works offer none of the pleasures and surprises afforded by good painting. Their surfaces are immaculate, flat and utterly dead. It doesn’t matter how close you get. Your eye just bounces off them. They offer no evidence of a thinking, feeling hand responding to light, shadow or color — much less human presence — as freshly felt phenomena. We feel only the application of an assembly line formula.

But my disappointment with this show is not all down to the fact that Wiley’s paintings and sculptures are flat and formulaic in execution. That I knew. It’s that the de Young is so eager to swoon in the same predictable direction. The wall texts go to great lengths to interpret the works for us. But they are riddled with pretentious art-speak and grossly inflated claims (for instance, “With their ornamental elements encroaching upon the figures, such works entwine social constructs of race and gender, suggesting that these notions are themselves irrational and thus dehumanizing”).

Alive to the show’s potential to cause upset, the museum is offering a “respite room” for those who want to step out. It is also offering workshops on grief. I don’t object to any of these specific efforts. I don’t doubt that people will have different responses to this show. I certainly don’t assume that people will share my view. But what I can’t help noticing is that museums are letting their main job — the clear and intelligent presentation of art to the public — vanish into a fog of condescension and cant. They are so busy congratulating themselves on their efforts (condescending to people is nothing if not effortful!) that they don’t hear the audience’s quiet plea: Please leave me in peace.

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, worked with de Young Director Thomas Campbell to bring the show to the United States after both men saw it in Venice. Walker told the New York Times he admired Wiley’s “treatment of both the dignity and the beauty in the physical bodies,” saying this was “often not the way we see dead Black men in American media.”

It’s certainly not. But I would say that’s for good reason. To me, the paintings’ garishly bright colors and immaculate surfaces displayed in dark, chapel-like galleries conjure nothing so much as cheap Catholic kitsch. Both the works and their presentation try to make something horrible and dehumanizing seem sacred and beautiful.

“This piercing light bathes the bodies and the paintings,” the show’s curator, Claudia Schmuckli, recently told the Times. “It gives them this aura of transcendence, of ecstasy that really transcends their value of sleep or death.” Wiley “shines a light on something often met with silence,” she added.

This is nonsense. The noise around systemic violence against Black people has been heightened, to say the least, since the murder of George Floyd. Rightly so. His killing, its countless precedents, the ongoing disaster — all are intolerable in a sane society. But large parts of the Black community are tired of the ways images of death and violence have been exploited, not least by artists, as part of a widespread compulsion to turn violence and tragedy into spectacle.

That’s what this show does. It doesn’t help a problem to “shine a light” on it if the light is just another kind of false rhetoric. This show explicitly uses the rhetoric of the Old Masters to turn violence against Black people into yet another form of spectacle. “That’s the through line throughout all of it,” Wiley said about the exhibition in an interview with the Times, “— these bodies chopped down.”

Okay. But is it all right if I don’t like “chopped down” bodies being turned into gorgeously lit paintings, much less skateboard decks?

Kundera also defined kitsch as “the absolute denial of s—, in both the literal and figurative sense of the word.” Kitsch, he explained, “excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” By transmuting suffering into style, this show performs a similar operation. It exploits tragedy and the stench of societal failure only to deny its reality.

Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence, through Oct. 15 at the de Young Museum, San Francisco.

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