Battle of the Brushes in Urban Portraiture

Kehinde Wiley would be the first to tell you that his game is tight. Wiley's paintings hang in the homes of celebrities (Denzel Washington, Elton John) and the halls of museums (the Brooklyn Museum, UCLA's Hammer Museum)—and he's just 31. His wry, outsize portraits of young black men posing as 18th-century noblemen draw five to six figures through Deitch Projects, the SoHo gallery reserved for the art world's ascending glitterati. And he's got the ego thing all squared away: he calls his work an exercise in "operatic bombastitude, admirably despondent to the pace and mores of polite society."

As yet another acclaimed Wiley series wrapped earlier this month at the Studio Museum in Harlem, it was replaced with a show by Barkley Hendricks, a fellow African-American portraitist whose quiet peak came in the 1970s, and whose work challenges the younger artist's right to all the glory. Hendricks is an obvious Wiley antecedent; Yale-educated like his counterpart, Hendricks's portraits are also photorealistic renderings of urban black youth against monochromatic backdrops. They too are life-size and heavily inspired by the same Western European easel painting Wiley both cherishes and subverts. "There is no greater connection I would like to make," says Studio Museum director Thelma Golden. But ask Wiley about his influences, and he'll sooner name the 16th-century Venetian school, Italian rococo master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo or the murky depths of Caravaggian chiaroscuro. He mentions Hendricks only when forced —and that's a shame.

Next to Wiley's pop slickness, Hendricks's work has a coarse, raw energy that crackles in portraits such as "Bid 'Em In," of a woman in a jersey that says SLAVE across the chest in twill athletic letters. After art critic Hilton Kramer called him "brilliantly endowed" in a 1977 review, the painter threw it back in his face with cheeky flair, painting a nude self-portrait—save a pair of thick, saggy tube socks. The title: "Brilliantly Endowed." That barbed wit kept Hendricks out of many galleries in the South. When an Alabama curator refused to show any nudes, Hendricks said, "You didn't seem to have too much of a problem showing black bodies up for sale." He hit the peak of his modest renown in the mid-'70s as the smiling face of a Dewar's Scotch ad, but commercial success never followed.

Wiley's work has all but saturated the pop sphere, making these overlapping shows an irresistible invitation to discuss the vicissitudes of fame—and the poverty of invention. Wiley calls himself a "history painter" of epic themes, and prefers to align his magpie tendencies with the nature of hip-hop: the way Kanye West rips off Ray Charles standards, Wiley pilfers from Rubens. But Wiley insists his portraiture is his own experiment, not a trope inherited from Hendricks, or anyone else. He bristles at being lumped into "black art," a genre he sees as primarily concerned with correcting negative stereotypes—and a burden he's not interested in assuming. "I happen to be a young black man who fell in love with Western easel painting, and I'm coming to terms with that," he says.

The older artist isn't one to draw comparisons, either. Now in his autumnal years, Hendricks, 63, spends his days teaching college students or dabbling in landscapes—"I'm chasing the sun," he says with a laugh. Last week he received a prestigious United States Artists grant, his name listed alongside such notables as Kara Walker. It's a long time coming, but he's grateful, not bitter. "No artist deserves anything," he says. "Van Gogh didn't get squat in his lifetime." And that's not a bad legacy to follow.

Battle of the Brushes in Urban Portraiture | Culture