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14 Mar 13:18

What to Make of the Village Voice’s Offensive Kehinde Wiley Review?

by Jillian Steinhauer
Kehinde Wiley’s "Femme Piquée par un Serpent" (2008) at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by Garrett Ziegler/Flickr)

Kehinde Wiley’s “Femme Piquée par un Serpent” (2008) at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by Garrett Ziegler/Flickr)

If you’re looking for a very generous review of the Kehinde Wiley exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, read Roberta Smith. If you’re looking for one that’s startlingly homophobic and racist, read Jessica Dawson. The latter piece, in the Village Voice, is truly one of the most bizarre and poor excuses for art criticism I’ve read in a very long time.

Dawson doesn’t lay out her suspect thesis (if you can call it that) until the review’s third paragraph: Kehinde Wiley’s work, she writes, is “predatory behavior dressed up as art-historical affirmative action.” She goes on to call the subjects of his portraits “targets” and mention “the more lurid implications of the 38-year-old artist’s production.”

Surely calling someone predatory is a serious allegation, one that should be backed up by something like proof, or at the very least a rock solid argument. What is Dawson’s argument for Wiley’s “predatory behavior”?

Well, as you might have guessed, it’s not entirely clear. It seems to have to do with the fact that the male subjects in Wiley’s paintings are sexualized — an immediate red flag given the long, ugly history in this country of gay men being labeled sexual predators.

Here’s Dawson laying out her “logic”:

And then there is Wiley’s casting-couch method. In the early 2000s, after he graduated from Yale, Wiley did a residency at the Studio Museum and began inviting men he met on the streets into his studio to pose. “When I’m approaching these guys, there’s a presupposed engagement,” Wiley said in the 2008 Art Newspaper interview. “I don’t ask people what their sexualities are, but there’s a sense in which male beauty is being negotiated.”

Once in the studio, Wiley presents his model with art-history books and asks him to choose which painting he’d like to be in. Straining to legitimize this method, Brooklyn Museum curator Eugenie Tsai lauds the artist in the exhibition catalog for “the subject’s active participation” in a “collaborative encounter … co-produced by the subject and the artist.”

So, is Wiley predatory because he invites men whom he meets on the street into his studio — a perfectly legitimate and widespread artistic practice?

What Wiley and his subjects do behind the scenes may be none of our business, but his paintings kiss and tell. Saint Andrew grinds his crotch against a wooden cross, and in case we don’t quite get it, Wiley has painted free-floating spermatozoa across the canvas. The same goes for the bear of a fellow in Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, which could be subtitled “(Through a Light Ejaculate Mist).”

Is he predatory because he paints his subjects in a sexualized manner? Because he’s also a man, painting them in a sexualized manner? Because they might even have sex? How is any of this not homophobic?

In what world is a Yale-minted artist who lures young men into his studio with the promise of power and glamour not predatory? These aren’t portraits. They’re types — to the point where the majority of his titles reflect only the identity of the original sitter; his models remain anonymous.

Beyond my doubts that Dawson has any real clue about what Wiley offers his subjects, I’d argue that she’s just plain wrong here. Does Wiley give his models a pass to Yale? No. But he does offer them the not-insignificant power of choosing how they will be represented, and he certainly gives them glamour.

Clearly, there is something about the sexualization of black men that offends or frightens Dawson. From the vagueness of her writing and the broadness of her generalizations, it’s hard to tell if it’s the “sexualization” or the “black men” part. Her writing about the central premise of Wiley’s work — to insert ordinary black people into paintings that mimic the grandeur of historical, and historically white, portraits — is just as problematic and offensive as the aspersions she casts on his process. Consider:

Where once was a powerful white man, Wiley inserts a firm piece of African-American flesh. Where white power aggrandized itself in official state portraiture, now young blacks from the ghetto, the ones newspaper headlines insist are without future and en route to incarceration, straddle stallions. What does it mean to put a young black man on a horse and call him Napoleon? If it isn’t dangling a fantasy and false hope, then at least it implies that young urban blacks are in desperate need of uplift. You call that empowerment?

It’s almost hard to know where to start unpacking a passage so brimming with barely veiled racism! First, we have the reduction of African Americans to their sexualized bodies (“a firm piece of African-American flesh”). Second, the assumption that all the subjects come “from the ghetto,” because, you know, they wear sneakers and Wiley found them on the street. Third, the connotation that all those “newspaper headlines” are being so dramatic by insisting that this country has a major problem with mass incarceration. And then there’s the kicker: the assertion that it is a “fantasy and false hope” to suggest that young black men should aspire to, let alone might ever achieve, positions of power. Wow.

I mean, look, I hardly think Kehinde Wiley is beyond reproach. I’ve written critically about him before, and others have written critically about this show. But there’s a difference between breaking down what works or doesn’t about his art and arguing that he’s a “predator” based on your own prejudiced reactions to that art.

That Dawson not only wrote this, but that Village Voice editors saw fit to publish it, makes it an urgent example of why journalism needs to diversify — badly and soon.

26 Feb 22:00

8,000 Books and Manuscripts Lost After ISIS Bombs Mosul Library

by Laura C. Mallonee
Book burning by ISIS militants (Image via Elaph)

Book burning by ISIS militants (photo via Elaph)

On Sunday night, more than 8,000 books and manuscripts were destroyed after ISIS militants bombed Mosul’s Central Library, The Fiscal Times reported. Ghanim al-Ta’an, the director of the library, said that some onlookers’ pleas to spare the library were ignored. Built in 1921, the building held one of the oldest historical archives in the city, with works dating back to the Ottoman Empire. Its website has since been suspended.

“I cry today over our situation,” Mosul-based activist and blogger Rayan al-Hadidi told the newspaper.

The tragic fire was ISIS’s second assault on the institution, according to the Associated PressIn January, militants broke into the library and filled empty flour bags with 2,000 books that filled six trucks. They included 18th-century manuscripts, 19th-century Syriac books published by Iraq’s first printing house, rare manuscripts from the Ottoman era, early-20th century Iraqi newspapers, and the valuable collections of more than 100 elite Mosul families. The fighters reportedly told onlookers, “These books promote infidelity and call for disobeying Allah. So they will be burned.” ISIS made it a capital crime to try to hide or preserve such books.

That same month, the group’s militants burned hundreds of books on science and culture in front of students at the University of Mosul library. They also destroyed collections at a Sunni Muslim library, the Mosul Museum Library (which has works dating back to 5,000 BCE), and the library of the 265-year-old Latin Church and Monastery of the Dominican Fathers. In the al-Anbar province of Western Iraq, local officials have reported that ISIS has burned over 100,000 books.

These events represent the latest efforts in ISIS’s campaign to cleanse culture in Iraq and Syria of anything that does not align with its radical ideology. They go hand-in-hand with the destruction of countless archaeological sites, as well as the public burning of musical instruments like modern drum sets.

Responding to the reports, UNESCO released the following statement in early February:

This destruction marks a new phase in the cultural cleansing perpetrated in regions controlled by armed extremists in Iraq … It adds to the systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities that seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people.

It added that, if confirmed, the burnings would represent “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history.” The Fiscal Times also noted that the burnings comprise the largest assault on cultural heritage in Iraq since the Mongol invaders burned the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and its collections in 1258. The news feels especially bitter given Iraq’s status as the birthplace of writing, with cuneiform having been developed by the ancient Sumerians in the 4th millennium BCE. It places ISIS in the ranks of the Nazi regime and Spanish conquistadors, all whom sought to kill culture by wiping out words.

The true fate of some of these books remains uncertain, though. The London-based Arabic newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi theorized that the burning of Mosul’s Central Library was actually a cover to distract from the looting and selling of rare manuscripts on the black market. A Baghdad bookseller told the publication he’d heard from fellow booksellers that ISIS fighters were only burning “normal” books. And a professor at the University of Mosul told the AP that ISIS fighters had arrived at the school in the middle of the night and carted away chunks of its library collection in refrigerated trucks with Syrian license plates. The sale of looted artifacts, principally antiquities, has become a major source of funds for ISIS.

But whatever comfort the potential survival of some of these books may bring, the destruction of the collections and buildings will likely prove unforgivable to the people of Iraq.

21 Feb 14:54

My failed attempt to draw the Nancy comic strip

by Ivan Brunetti
Nancy is a harsh taskmaster; resuscitating it was a grueling task, but the challenge was invigorating and edifying. By drawing Nancy, I realized that every character (even the environment) in a strip is the cartoonist and is invested and imbued with the cartoonist’s life force. Read the rest
16 Jun 17:05

Neil Young loves model trains

by David Pescovitz

Neil Young talks model trains with David Letterman. Young isn't just a model train enthusiast, he's also an inventor. From Dangerous Minds:

Young first created a research and development company, Liontech, to help the storied Lionel, LLC train manufacturing company, founded in 1900, create model trains with sound systems and control units. Young then became part owner of Lionel, along with an investment company. It was Young’s designs and inventions for Lionel that helped to bring the company out of bankruptcy in 2008. Young’s first train-related invention was a control unit, the Big Red Button, that enabled his son, who has cerebral palsy, to control the trains.
"Neil Young, Model Train Geek"

14 Apr 16:13

Why Techies Don’t Buy Contemporary Art

VIA -- This, for me, is the real reason that tech types don't buy art: they're busy investing in each other's startups instead. Being an early-stage investor is in many ways just like being a contemporary art collector: you're very unlikely to make money at it, even though the potential and anecdotal returns can be enormous; and it's used in large part as a way of supporting your friends and being seen as being important within a very small world. Wealthy technologists are defined by their Crunchbase profiles in much the same way as art collectors are defined by their art collections. ~continue reading