Kehinde Wiley 'The World Stage: Israel'

Review

of an Exhibition

by miriam berger

Published on March 25, 2012, Modified on April 20, 2012

  • Description:

    Kehinde Wiley ‘The World Stage: Israel’ at the Jewish Museum

    Kehinde Wiley’s exhibition, ‘The World Stage: Israel,’ at the Jewish Museum in New York’s Upper East Side is made up of four rooms of painting by Wiley of men of color from Israel / Palestine and connected artifacts from the Jewish Museum’s collection.
    The Kehinde Wiley show is a manageable exhibition, not as big as a retrospective, but not small, either. It is a cohesive body of work, highlights from a larger body of work on the same theme. The exhibition did not tire me out or exhaust me, which I like. The rest of the museum tends to exhaust me, though, so if you want a visit to do you for the whole day, seeing more of the rest of the museum is a good idea.

    ‘The World Stage: Israel’ is the only exhibition on the second floor, and it does not use the whole floor. The elevator / stairway entrance is painted a dark grey / blue color with the artist’s name and the title of the exhibition lettered on one wall. Not all the available wall space is used. The paintings are spaced out sedately. This feels very much in contrast to the life of New York City outside of the museum.
    Each room has both Wiley paintings and artifacts. Larger artifacts go with larger paintings, and smaller artifacts are shown in the rooms with smaller paintings. The artifacts are displayed in cases horizontally, so that one looks down on them, There are marriage contracts, mizrah (cut paper), torah ark covers, shiviti (synagogue plaques), and a bed covering / wall tapestry. These various pieces of Judaica are displayed at knee height or at waist height.

    The first time I came to the exhibition, I chose one of two possibilities for where to enter the exhibition. The second time I visited, the guard pointed and told me where to begin. I hadn’t used the proper entrance before, and it did make more sense the second time. One is supposed to start at one end and end at the documentary video. The video is separated from the rest of the exhibition by a free-standing wall, with three rows of six foot long padded benches for seating. One can hear the video throughout the exhibition, but it is not distracting or disturbing. By the time I got to the video, I was curious as to what the noise was. The exhibition space itself is overall quiet, without much visitor noise both of the times I went.

    The larger body of Wiley’s work, from which this show was chosen, is available for viewing in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. The comment book and a copy of the exhibition catalogue are fixed to a waist high table by the entrance/exit space, opposite the introductory wall text. In the comment book, someone wrote: ‘Where are the women?’ It is true: Wiley only paints men.

    Aside from the video seating, there is one long bench along the windows in the biggest room. The two rooms with windows have black or very dark grey scrims over them, so you can see outside, but the window light does not compete with the spotlights on the artwork.

    The walls are cream or a dark navy / grey combination color from which the paintings’ bright colors leap out. In the rooms with white walls, those are the walls with the paintings. The rest of the walls are painted that dark blue/grey in those rooms. In rooms with small paintings, all the walls are that dark color. Smaller paintings, about 3 feet by 4 or 5 feet, are on the darker walls, while larger than life-size portraits are on the white/ cream walls. In the rooms with larger paintings on cream walls, the white walls stand out, as do the paintings on them. There is also dark, beautiful, unobtrusive woodwork as part of the galleries. The carved wooden frames are darker than the architectural woodwork in the rooms, but they seem to go together; both are ornate and old-fashioned.

    The picture frames are all identical, dark, carved wood with Jewish symbols, including a central top carving with either the ten commandments or Rodney King’s question ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ written in Hebrew. None of the portraits, even the large ones, are full length. All are cropped.

    Spotlights on each painting, coupled with the darkness of the walls, make the bright, vibrant colors stand out. The paintings feature bright, fresh, new colors, not old master colors. Wiley’s work often gets compared to the old master painting tradition, but he does not use old master techniques or compositions. His color is direct and his compositions are very busy and have information filling every inch. The paintings do have a traditional feel with the fact that they are portraits and the heroic poses of the sitters. The reference to the paper-cuts is an update on his classic filigree motifs, and the figure / ground battle is a contemporary one. The models’ realistically painted t-shirts make the work feel very modern and up to date. Years from now, I can imagine the t-shirts designs giving the pieces a sense of time.

    A few labels and wall texts give a little information, but most labels are just names or object names. I can tell from the sitter’s names who is Muslim and who is Jewish. I think it would be helpful to know more about each sitter. Wiley’s point may be that it doesn’t matter what you are, that we’re all in this together, but I would like to know who is all in this together.

    As I got closer to the end and the video (more of a documentary than an artwork itself), the sound attracted me, inviting me to watch the video. Although the sound could have been annoying, it was not. The video is not about the making of the paintings or the technique, but about the sitters themselves. The video touches on social issues, hip-hop, and the photographing of the sitters. We also follow Kehinde as he looks for patterns in an Israeli market. The video is not completely in focus, which is a little distracting.

    I wanted a little more wall text, more information. However, the amount is probably perfect for someone who doesn’t like to read much in museums.

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