During a conversation Thursday with Mark Cameron Boyd, he mentioned that Kehinde Wiley has his paintings made in China. The statement stopped me dead in my tracks and I felt like Steve Martin in The Jerk when he learned he was adopted.
After seeing Recognize at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a bland tribute to hip-hop culture (if you call a tribute bad graffiti and photos of rappers with microphones to their mouths a tribute), it was easy to walk away from it mesmerized by the saccharine colors and fluorescence of Wiley's work. As an artist mired in the drivel of Post Post Post Post Post Modernist critique, it becomes easy to prattle off the questions related to the form of portrait painting and the history associated with it, as well as ponder his brilliance with words like recontextualize, appropriate, and juxtapose. These were things I pondered with my wife over dinner the night after seeing the show. She looked at me a little bored and said, "you are thinking way too much into this."
Wiley's work is painted in China by Chinese laborers and artisans. Scour a Google search of "Kehinde Wiley China." Some critics will call it his studio. One called it an atelier, which is the fancy word for studio. I think it is safe to label it what it is: manufacturing. And, apparently, Wiley intends to open "ateliers" in several other emerging markets to outsource the manufacturing of "his" paintings. (This is in step with some current Chinese business practices - China is doing this now with several products because the cost for Chinese labor is not as cheap as it used to be.)
With the new revelation, the idea becomes much more interesting: outsourcing the labor of a painting. It isn't new. Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Thomas Kinkade all do/did it. Three of the four are found in museums across the globe, with Kinkade found mostly in shopping malls. But, would any self-respecting artist really want to be lumped into that category? I suppose if work is selling for five, six, seven and eight figures, the integrity of the label "artist" can be bought out for "entrepreneur." It is an interesting business plan, for sure, and possibly outweighs the b.s. about the 'appropriation from multiple cultures juxtaposed with the borrowed works of Western history to create a portrait painting that both follows and questions the craft of portraiture.' (yawn.)
I think the critics might also be excited because he is young, possibly hip, and Black. Draw what parallels you will to Basquiat, but Wiley won't O.D. However, the market might O.D. from Wiley's paintings as it did with the flood of Basquiat forgeries that filled the market shortly following Basquiat's death. That begs an interesting point: if Basquiat's works are devalued because they are discovered forgeries, what happens to the work of a painter that hardly paints his own work? Whatever. As Chuck D once wrote, "Don't believe the hype."
If there is anything to Recognize, it's that Kehinde Wiley can't "keep it real." But, he's more a pawn than a player - his celebrity is the act of a market, fueled by curators and critics, to pull Chinese rayon over our eyes. And, it's only fitting. Everything else we own is made in China. The backbone of our credit card economy is made in China. So, why not also our art. After all, when it comes to a knowledge of art history and art appreciation, we in the United States are a dim sum.