In Wiley’s own words, the portraits in An Economy of Grace are interested in “the performance of gender,” the historical depictions of women, but also, in “celebrating glamour, and the sensuality of the female form.” This body of work is successful as it captures all of these elements — some conflicting — almost without your knowing anything has happened at all. The pill goes down so easily that, until you see the severed head of a white woman clutched in the hand of a beautiful and statuesque black model, posed after iconic paintings of the biblical figure Judith, you could almost forget the larger political implications of the work, and the significance of representing black female beauty on this scale at all as you drift from one ravishing tableau to another.
One of Wiley’s chief talents lies in his ability to use classic, Western elements of art history to both highlight and aggrandize the beauty and authority of the very subjects historically ignored by that tradition, all the while seamlessly drawing a critical spotlight on the values system of the canon, without, for even a moment, allowing the complexities of message, context, time and place to encumber the undeniable truth/beauty of the work.
Much more could be said about the complexities of Wiley’s take on class, race, gender and the ever raveling and unraveling concept of identity, not to mention the significance of Wiley himself — perhaps the most successful black artist since Basquiat. Simply put, this is one exhibit that should not be missed.
Chase Quinn is a freelance writer, art critic, and budding novelist, who has worked with several leading human rights organizations in the U.S. and the UK, promoting social and economic justice. Follow Chase on Twitter at @chasequinn.