Tiffany B. Brown

Krista Thompson “Of Shine, Bling, and Bixels” and thoughts on class and aesthetics

Krista Thompson by Mary Hamlon

For the record: I now want to be besties with Krista Thompson, the 2009 winner of the David C. Driskell Prize and Associate Professor of Art History at Northwestern University. Her recent High Museum lecture, “Of Shine, Bling and Bixels: Toward a Post-Soul Art History,” blew me away with its analysis of contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley‘s work and the ways in which it references both pop culture and Renaissance symbolism.

If you have seen portraits of hip-hop stars featured in VH1′s Hip-Hop Honors series, you are familiar with Kehinde Wiley’s work. His portraits feature contemporary black male subjects — famous and not — in poses that replicate or give a nod to Renaissance-era portraiture.

Wiley’s portraits, Thompson says, use a hyper-luminous light source. He often oils the faces of his subjects to bring out their ‘shine.’ Wiley then places them against backgrounds pulled from 1950s era wallpaper or 1990s Martha Stewart wallpaper patterns. At once, she argues, Wiley references both Hype Williams’ shiny video aesthetic that ushered in the ice and bling era of hip-hop and American mass consumption and consumerism.

By posing these men against backgrounds of wallpaper, I think Wiley is also commenting on the ways in which we relegate black men to the background of politics and power, though they are in the foreground of contemporary pop culture. Thompson also suggests that the use of wallpaper — very domestic, very feminine — is also a way in which Wiley (who is gay) plays with notions of black masculinity.

Kehinde Wiley and the Renaissance

Thompson also tied Wiley’s work to the use of light and sheen (or shine) in Renaissance Era portraits, particularly those from the Dutch school. As she explained, oil paint was a new medium in the late Renaissance. It appeared at the same time luxury goods were arriving in Europe from abroad. Painters from the Dutch school, in particular, used light and sheen to capture the opulence and sumptuousness of these new fabrics and products and wealth.

But the faces and flesh of white European male subjects? Shine and light were never used. Shine was used to emphasize objects, not people. Yet black and African subjects from the period were frequently portrayed as ‘shiny.’ I believe Thompson argues that this was a part of the objectification and ‘othering’ of blackness that was part-and-parcel of the burgeoning trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Classism, bling and Black Folks

What struck me, however, was a comment Thompson made in response to a question from an older, obviously middle-to-upper middle class black gentleman in the audience. He asked (if I recall correctly) about the ethics of hip-hop’s conspicuous consumption culture of at a time when black folks are in such dire straits.

Thompson said, roughly: “We don’t see a driver of a BMW as consuming in the same way as someone who’s wearing a shiny watch, even if that watch cost $10.” It is about, she said, who we think should consume and who shouldn’t.

In many ways, bling and the related “ghetto fabulous” aesthetic are about visibility and asserting power through visual, material display. It’s in contrast to values of restraint and a comparatively modest display of consumption that are hallmarks of middle-class aesthetics. It’s expressed in the differences between Facebook and MySpace users. Among black people, it often plays out along generational lines.

Let me suggest that the bling aesthetic is a way for poor and/or urban black people to claim and stake visibility in a period when both white and bourgeois black flight rendered them silent and invisible.

Much of the visibility of the Civil Rights Movement — the ‘soul’ era if we use musical shifts as our markers — came from respectable Negroes: college students, preachers, prim-and-proper women of high moral character and community standing such as Rosa Parks.

I am stealing a point from feminist critic bell hooks here by arguing that the Civil Rights Movement was, in many ways, a movement of the black bourgeoisie. The goal was about access to middle-class mainstream (read: white) society and its trappings — equality of opportunity, rather than cultural transformation or revolution. When the movement stalled, thanks to the contributions of integration, bourgie-Negro flight and Reagonomics, poor and/or urban blacks disappeared, except in demonized forms (‘Welfare Queen,’ Willie Horton, etc.).

Enter hip-hop and its aspirational consumption patterns and conspicuous display. Looking rich is as important as being rich. After all, how fly can your $800 Louis Vuitton bag be if I have one too? (Don’t worry about the fact that I got it on Canal St.) How fly can your $3,000 Rolex be if my $25 rhinestone watch is way blingier? I mean I got a quarter tank of gas / in my new E Class, and Got everythaaaang / In my mama naaaame but I’m Still Fly, right?

I think this is where my point ties back to those raised by Thompson in her lecture, and Wiley’s work. Consumption on display is a way of asserting and displaying power and prestige — something which the aesthetic of bling at once adheres to and subverts.

More about Kehinde Wiley

5 Responses to “Krista Thompson “Of Shine, Bling, and Bixels” and thoughts on class and aesthetics”

  1. Michelle_Jones says:

    I'm sorry I don't have a relevant comment I just want to say: Damn, you're smart.

    And bell hooks is from Hopkinsville, Kentucky. She spoke at the Women Study's conference at WKU my freshman year in college. She was just as nice as she was smart. It was incredibly inspirational to hear her speak.

  2. Break it down Tiffany, bring it. Thanks for introducing us to this woman and for letting us in to how your brain works. I'm moved by this artist's work, bc I've always associated it with the banjee (read homo thug) an effeminate masculine man. I love his use of color and perspective of black male life. I'm hoping to add one of his pieces to my collection. Thanks for making me love his work more and again, dropping science.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think that’s another way to read his works. I noticed that these portraits highlight the subjects’ femininity. That’s equally due to floral and wallpaper backdrops and the Renaissance poses and fashion that seem really effeminate compared to those of modern American (black) masculinity.

    Maybe that’s another layer of meaning in Wiley’s works: the invisibility of black gay men in a culture that expects its gay men to be effeminate and its black men to be uber masculine.

  4. tiffanybbrown says:

    I think that's another way to read his works. I noticed that these portraits highlight the subjects' femininity. That's equally due to floral and wallpaper backdrops and the Renaissance poses and fashion that seem really effeminate compared to those of modern American (black) masculinity.

    Maybe that's another layer of meaning in Wiley's works: the invisibility of black gay men in a culture that expects its gay men to be effeminate and its black men to be uber masculine.

  5. I definitely like the way you're thinking.

    “I think that's partly the success of my work-the ability to straddle both of those worlds, the ability to have a young black girl walk into the Brooklyn Museum and see paintings she recognizes not because of their art or historical influence but because of their inflection, in terms of colors, their specificity and presence.” KW in an interview w/MIA in Interview http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/kehinde-wi

    So perhaps it's the same for him to straddle the worlds of hiphop and these other periods of artistic influence. To be part of, dare I say it, low culture, and high culture at the same time — juxtaposed, taking the subject out of the streets of BK, Harlem, or LA, and putting them in this other world to make them visible? Mainly I feel that what I'm saying is what you're saying…I'm just taking a while to get there.

    Thanks again for this post and for engaging with me.