An Artistic One-Two Punch

Artists Kehinde Wiley and Laurent Grasso debut timely new works in Hell’s Kitchen.

Photo by Max Yawney

Nothing like hitting two birds with one stone! See a duo of powerhouse works in one place this month at Sean Kelly Gallery, on the outskirts of Hudson Yards. On the first floor is “Trickster,” a new exhibition from the acclaimed artist Kehinde Wiley, who is well known for his portraits that depict “urban, black, and brown men” in the style of Europe’s Old Masters. Down in the basement, Laurent Grasso’s 16-minute film, Élysée, whose subject is France’s presidential palace, plays continuously; it’s the first showing of the piece in the U.S.

In Wiley’s large-scale realist paintings, black figures appear in settings and positions that recall European masterpieces by the likes of Gainsborough, Titian, and Reynold. The juxtaposition is startling every time, and now, Wiley has reinvented his concept yet again. Instead of using anonymous sitters, he portrays his contemporaries: famous black artists such as Nick Cave (not the Bad Seeds musician), Kerry James Marshall (whose recent retrospective, “Mastry,” at the Met energized the art world), and Mickalene Thomas. The works are inspired by the Francisco Goya’s Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings), in which the Spanish painter employed a dark palette and sinewy figuring to sinister, creepy effect. But where Goya’s subjects were gaunt and menacing, Wiley’s are are luminous, as if they were goddesses or sorceresses conquering their dark, foreboding background. And most of the artists are dressed in what seem to be their own clothes. Cave is depicted in a palatial setting, but he wears a sweater, jeans, and high-top sneakers.

Most of the subjects gaze directly at the viewer, defiantly, as is typical of Wiley’s paintings, but in some of the most interesting works, the expressions are subtler. Carrie Mae Weems glances over her shoulder with a look of suspicion. She’s depicted among rocks and holds one in her hand, as if she might throw it. The title of the piece is Portrait of Carrie Mae Weems, Eris—the Greek goddess of strife and discord.

Photo by Max Yawney

After you’ve spent time with the paintings, venture downstairs for Élysée, which is equally sumptuous and elaborate—but also a reminder why we need the space-making work of Wiley. Conceptual artist Grasso obtained special permission to film inside the Salon Doré (Golden Room) in the Élysée Palace in Paris—aka the office of the president of France. The camera slowly pans around the room, taking in the gilded cornices and furniture, crystal chandeliers, ornately painted walls, and guards wearing royal regalia. But there’s also evidence of our modern world: piles of papers, newspapers and books, file folders, toy cars, pens. The original score by Nicolas Godin, a French electronica artist, is spooky and ominous and later quickens and becomes rhythmic. Not only is the film beautiful, but it also raises the question: If this room is leftover from the past, what will we leave behind? And with all the uncertainty in the world, suggested by the headlines on the newspapers in the film, will this room survive for future generations to see?

Why You Should Go: Get a double dose of art that’s both timely and incredibly skilled. A Wiley exhibition only comes along every couple of years, so don’t miss seeing these masterful new paintings while you can. Grasso’s film on the floor below is also gorgeous—a perfect complement and a terrific bonus.

© Laurent Grasso / ADAGP, Paris, 2017, courtesy: Sean Kelly, New York

Kehinde Wiley‘s “Trickster” and Laurent Grasso’s Élysée
Sean Kelly Gallery
475 Tenth Avenue (between West 36th and 37th Streets), Hell’s Kitchen
Through Saturday, June 17
Tuesday–Friday, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.

Have one helluva day in Hell’s Kitchen with this itinerary: