Art Trend Alert: Power Poses for the Disempowered

Kehinde Wiley, Ricardo Hernandez and Gabriel García Román have unique takes on a great idea.

Julissa from Gabriel García Román's "Queer Icons" (Click all images to enlarge.)
Julissa from Gabriel García Román’s “Queer Icons
(Click all images to enlarge.)

According to the immutable law of nature by which three examples of a phenomenon constitute a trend, a remarkable trend has come to light in the galleries and museums of New York this year. I’ll get into much more detail below, of course, but in broad strokes, this trend consists of artists of color depicting members of various disenfranchised or invisible communities, also largely of color, in proud, dramatic, distinctive poses borrowed from or inspired by history or religious paintings from the art-historical canon. These artistic quotations lend gravity and presence to images of people rarely represented and even more rarely represented respectfully.

The three artists I’ve seen working in this trend are: American painter Kehinde Wiley, whose work was the subject of a major mid-career retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum this Spring; Chilean painter and installation artist Ricardo Hernandez, who mounted a show called Illegal this summer at Novella Gallery on the Lower East Side; and Mexican-American mixed-media artist Gabriel García Román, who showed some of his “Queer Icons” in a group show this summer at Dixon Place (which I co-organized), and whose first solo show opens in Spring 2016 at Gallery Aferro in Newark, NJ.

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The crux of this trend is actually not new. Sixteenth-century painters copied poses and details from the Greek and Roman sculpture that had recently been rediscovered, not to mention these same painters’ free borrowing from each other (Michelangelo, especially, was a borrower and a source). Jumping to the 19th century, probably the most famous example of the artistic strategy I’m describing is Edouard Manet’s quotation of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) in his 1863 painting Olympia.

Titian & Monet
Great artists steal. Not a brand new trend.
Titian’s Venus of Urbino (top) is a clear source for Manet’s Olympia

Manet painted Olympia to look like what she was: a courtesan, a demimondaine, a prostitute. Viewers in the 1860s found her penetrating gaze and the hard-edged, frank carnality of her body to be off-putting and unsettlingly like, well, looking at a prostitute. Titian, by contrast, although his model probably was a courtesan, painted a nude who looks languid, non-confrontational, pleasing. Moreover, framing her as Venus made the image safe and family friendly. Manet borrows the higher status of the goddess figure from Titian to give the lower-status Olympia a boost of (artistic) respectability. Olympia was still a difficult and controversial painting at the Salon, but the quotation from Titian contributed to elevating the image into one that did, in fact, make it into the Salon.

Back in the present, despite the overlapping strategy of borrowing art-historical poses, Wiley, Hernandez and Román approach their projects from distinct perspectives, and these result in a rich variety in the artwork. Each of these artists’ unique approach to this trend makes it an exciting one to watch.

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Wiley is by far the most prominent of the three, which is clear through his marquee museum show earlier this year. For his work, he invites young, African-American men (Wiley is also African American) he meets on the streets of New York to pose for the paintings—“street casting”—and then the models collaborate with Wiley on choosing poses from art history books. (Wiley has since expanded his project to include models from around the world in a series called “The World Stage,” and even more recently has begun adding portraits of women to his body of work, as well, in his “An Economy of Grace” series.)

David & Wiley
Kehinde Wiley emphasizes the borrowing in his titles.
Top: Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1801
Bottom: Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005

Sociologically, Wiley’s work is about intervening in class and racial imbalances. Broadly speaking, museums are filled with images of “important” people—royalty, aristocrats, saints, etc.—but vanishingly few images of people of color. Recasting a disempowered, urban African-American young man in the heightened—sometimes heightened to equestrian heights—pose of an emperor in a room-sized painting teases apart and reconfigures these signs of status and respect. Wiley reinforces the sociological content with his advanced sense of color and design to make the paintings simultaneously sensually seductive and politically salient. You can see many more images at Wiley’s web site.

Hernandez’s more modest, simpler paintings are part of a complex installation focused on the tragedies faced by marginal populations without access to protections or resources, such as immigrants, drug addicts, prostitutes, activists, etc. For the paintings in Illegal, the artist found death records for several people who fall into these categories from around Chile, and used models to create portraits that honor the humanity of the these dead and that echo the compositions and poses from old master paintings, including works by Jan van Eyck, Leonardo, Titian or Jacques-Louis David.

Melek & van Eyck
Left: Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, 1433
Right: Ricardo Hernandez, Melek, 1974–2011, from Illegal

The paintings are smaller, less grandiose and less refined than Wiley’s, which adds intimacy to their emotional impact and is appropriate to the circumstances and the specificity of the tragedies Hernandez memorializes. The artist displays informational wall labels alongside the paintings that harrowingly list how the subjects died and where the bodies were found. The flat, coroner’s-report tone of the labels leaves it to the viewer to sympathize with the evident human tragedies. For example, the label for the painting Melek (see above) lists Melek’s name, his date of death, that he was a male Pacific Islander, that he was discovered in an abandoned warehouse, details that I will spare you about his extensive injuries and the post-mortem “canine feeding,” and the official cause of death: “Abdominal penetrating trauma with hepatic rupture.” More images of the installation, the paintings and the wall labels are available at the Novella Gallery web site.

That level of abject detail, while difficult to read, very effectively refocuses the project on the specific individuals and the urgency of their plight. Depicting Melek as a van Eyck portrait subject elevates that tragic individual to the status of someone deserving of respect, which, Hernandez implies, was not how anyone actually saw Melek during his lifetime. If Wiley uses the quoted poses as playful, if politically directed, performative fantasias, Hernandez derives a kind of quiet elegy from the very same strategy. This acts as an indictment of the larger society for failing to see human dignity in everyone and for letting such violent ends come to people who never got the help they needed.

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In contrast to Wiley and Hernandez, whose quotations of old master poses come from precise, identifiable sources, Román’s “Queer Icons” refer more generally to a style of religious imagery. But despite the lack of explicitly borrowed details, Román’s images evoke Catholic icons unmistakably. This connection is more than handily created by the subjects’ straight-backed, formal poses; their deliberate (if inscrutable) hand gestures; the dignity of their beatific expressions; the richness and luminescence of the materials (watch the short video below); and, of course, their emphatic haloes.

Román’s subjects are all queer and trans people of color, many of them artists and activists. These are still identity groups struggling for basic cultural visibility and more secure social status. Representing these individuals as saints is certainly helpful to that struggle. The images are not paintings, but products of a substantially complicated photographic printing process on pieces of decorative paper (photogravure combined with chine-collé—I won’t get into more detail than that, but follow the links if you’re curious). If queer and trans people of color are invisible, the choice to use a photo-mechanical, indexical process (over, for example, more subjective paint) takes on meaning. One other thing that the “Queer Icons” do that is missing from Wiley and Hernandez is give the subjects a direct voice. Recently, the artist has involved his subjects in the process beyond being photographed; they have the opportunity to tell their stories or make statements or write poetry in their own handwriting as part of the integral image, filling the space around the figure. See many, many more “Queer Icons” at Román’s web site.

Sonia & Icon
Not direct quotation, but a clear stylistic influence.
Left: Gabriel García Román, Sonia
Right: An icon of the Virgin Mary, to illustrate a specific style / via

The humanism of Román’s “Queer Icons” makes them the best-resolved project among my three trend setters. They are as gorgeous and exquisite as Wiley’s paintings, but have a greater warmth as the subjects’ personalities come through more directly. All three artists favor poses that let the subjects gaze out of the frame. Most of Wiley’s figures tend to affect imperious and aloof expressions that can seem to either ignore or stare straight through viewers. Hernandez’s figures meet our eyes, but the weight of the implicit violence of their deaths imbues a sense of tragedy and silence that overpowers everything else. What is evident in the eyes of Román’s icons, though, is the spark of empathy. There is a powerful human connection between image and viewer, and the artists and activists in these prints come across as complete, self-possessed characters with complex inner lives and work still to do because the struggle isn’t over yet. But these human icons give me hope for the struggle.