Right in the middle of the exhibition “Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys,” which opens Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum, is Kehinde Wiley’s 25-foot-long 2008 painting “Femme Piquée par un Serpent.” Showing a Black man in snappy but casual dress reclined in a distinctively twisted position, with a background of Wiley’s signature flowers, it borrows both title and pose from an 1847 marble sculpture by Auguste Clésinger. What you think of it really depends on what you’re asking for.
If you view the painting as a Venti-size iteration of Wiley’s ongoing project, his decades-long attack on the paucity of Black faces in Western museums and art history, it’s one-note but hard to argue with. Brightly colored and thoughtfully composed, it’s visually appealing, and even today, when it’s no longer so uncommon to see Black figures on museum walls, catching sight of one this big still elicits a thrill.
On the other hand, considered strictly as a painting, “Femme Piquée par un Serpent” (“Woman Bitten by a Serpent”) doesn’t offer that much. There are no details that you’d miss in a jpeg reproduction, no visible evidence of human hands at play, no sensual pleasure to be found in the surface, nothing surprising, mysterious or engrossing. It’s simply the adept illustration of an idea.
Of course, you could also ask for both — for a clear conceptual work about painting (and the historical exclusion of Black subjects and artists) that is also a good painting. If you do, you’re likely to respond to “Femme Piquée par un Serpent” with ambivalence and frustration.
I was thinking about this — about artistic endeavors that succeed and fail at the same time — as I walked through “Giants,” the latest celebrity tie-in exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. (“Spike Lee: Creative Sources” closes on Sunday; a show of photographs by Paul McCartney opens in May.) “Giants” draws on the extensive art collection of the married musical superstars Keys and Beatz (Kasseem Dean), bringing together 98 works — many oversized and of recent vintage — by 37 artists. Most of them are American, but they also come from several countries in Europe and half a dozen in Africa, and they range in generation from Ernie Barnes, who died at 70 in 2009, to Qualeasha Wood, born in 1996.