Down, an exhibition of seven heroically-scaled paintings by Kehinde Wiley, opened November 1, 2008 at Deitch Projects’s 18 Wooster Street gallery, his third solo exhibition with the gallery.
Initially inspired by Holbein’s painting The Dead Christ in the Tomb as well as historical paintings and sculptures of fallen warriors and figures in the state of repose, Wiley created an unsettling series of prone bodies – some a product of the ravages of war, some contorted into erotic revelry, while others embodied the majesty and severity of entombed Saints.
Epic in nature, Down was Wiley’s most ambitious series to date. These figurative paintings, which extended up to twenty-five feet in length, had grandeur and gravity seldom seen in contemporary art.
Drawn from works of fallen characters by Holbein, Mantegna, Houdon, Maderno, Restout and Clesinger, Wiley re-conceptualized classical pictorial forms to create a contemporary version of monumental portraiture. The works resounded with violence, pain, and death, as well as sexual ecstasy. They portrayed a sense of heroism in the face of death, incorporating a scale that pushed beyond the mere corporeal and into the level of legend and hero worship.
Described by Wiley, Down was “an answer to the negative views of young Black men in American society. It recognizes an idiom that can be seen from a distance as a negative form transformed into something more fabulous and joyful. Down is a recognition of a type of artistic malaise that exists in current dialogue in art where joy is perceived as suspect and where absolute beauty is regarded with disdain. Down is at once an embrace of the visceral and the very physical embodiment of its denial.”
The subjects of the paintings were all African-American men in their late teens and twenties found in Brooklyn. Twin brothers, Dee and Ricky Jackson, who were portrayed as Lord Digby and Lord Russell in a previous series of paintings, chose the models for DOWN, allowing Wiley to expand his practice by having the models not only participate as subjects, but also in the exchange that wents with the casting, creating a self-directed system.