FIRST LOOK | KEHINDE WILEY “A NEW REPUBLIC” RETROSPECTIVE AT THE BROOKLYN MUSUEM

April 16, 2015  |  Uncategorized

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For over 13 years, L.A. native Kehinde Wiley has been mashing up classical old master compositions with modern black subjects to create his own brand of modern neo-classicism that is equally loved and reviled by fans and critics alike. Polarizing as his intricate, kitsch-laden grand-scale paintings may be, their place in the annals of modern art history has been firmly solidified by Wiley’s persistence, consistency, and sheer force of will to become as famous as some of the hip hop celebrities that often grace his compositions. Love them or leave them, the paintings certainly comprise a striking body of work that speaks to a demographic rarely addressed by the high art world, a driving factor behind the Brooklyn Museum‘s ambitious mid-career survey A New Republic currently on view alongside the revelatory Basquiat: The Unseen Notebooks exhibition next door.

The works presented in Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic raise questions about race, gender, and the politics of representation by portraying contemporary African American men and women using the conventions of traditional European portraiture. The exhibition includes an overview of the artist’s prolific fourteen-year career and features sixty paintings and sculptures. Wiley’s signature portraits of everyday men and women riff on specific paintings by Old Masters, replacing the European aristocrats depicted in those paintings with contemporary black subjects, drawing attention to the absence of African Americans from historical and cultural narratives.

The subjects in Wiley’s paintings often wear sneakers, hoodies, and baseball caps, gear associated with hip-hop culture, and are set against contrasting ornate decorative backgrounds that evoke earlier eras and a range of cultures. Through the process of “street casting,” Wiley invites individuals, often strangers he encounters on the street, to sit for portraits. In this collaborative process, the model chooses a reproduction of a painting from a book and reenacts the pose of the painting’s figure. By inviting the subjects to select a work of art, Wiley gives them a measure of control over the way they’re portrayed.

For most of Kehinde Wiley’s very successful career, he has created large, vibrant, highly patterned paintings of young African American men wearing the latest in hip hop street fashion. The theatrical poses and objects in the portraits are based on well-known images of powerful figures drawn from seventeenth- through nineteenth-century Western art. Pictorially, Wiley gives the authority of those historical sitters to his twenty-first-century subjects. In 2005, VH1 commissioned Wiley to paint portraits of the honorees for that year’s Hip Hop Honors program. Turning his aesthetic on end, he used his trademark references to older portraits to add legitimacy to paintings of this generation’s already powerful musical talents. In Wiley’s hands, Ice T channels Napoleon, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five take on a seventeenth-century Dutch civic guard company.

Wiley’s portraits of African American men collate modern culture with the influence of Old Masters. Incorporating a range of vernaculars culled from art historical references, Wiley’s work melds a fluid concept of modern culture, ranging from French Rococo to today’s urban landscape. By collapsing history and style into a unique contemporary vision, Wiley interrogates the notion of master painter, “making it at once critical and complicit.” Vividly colorful and often adorned with ornate gilded frames, Wiley’s large-scale figurative paintings, which are illuminated with a barrage of baroque or rococo decorative patterns, posit young black men, fashioned in urban attire, within the field of power reminiscent of Renaissance artists such as Tiepolo and Titian.

Initially, Wiley’s portraits were based on photographs taken of young men found on the streets of Harlem. As his practice grew, his eye led him toward an international view, including models found in urban landscapes throughout the world—such as Senegal, Dakar and Rio de Janeiro, among others—accumulating to a vast body of work called, “The World Stage.” The models, dressed in their everyday clothing–most of which are based on the notion of far-reaching Western ideals of style–are asked to assume poses found in paintings or sculptures representative of the history of their surroundings. This juxtaposition of the “old” inherited by the “new”–who often have no visual inheritance of which to speak–immediately provides a discourse that is at once visceral and cerebral in scope.

Wiley’s portraits of African American men collate modern culture with the influence of Old Masters. By applying the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, wealth, prestige, and history to subject matter drawn from the urban fabric, Wiley makes his subjects and their stylistic references juxtaposed inversions of each other, forcing ambiguity and provocative perplexity to pervade his imagery. Wiley’s larger-than-life figures disturb and interrupt tropes of portrait painting, often blurring the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation and the critical portrayal of masculinity and physicality as it pertains to the view of black and brown young men.

Incorporating a range of vernaculars culled from art historical references, Wiley’s work melds a fluid concept of modern culture, ranging from French Rococo to today’s urban landscape. By collapsing history and style into a unique contemporary vision, Wiley interrogates the notion of master painter, “making it at once critical and complicit.” Vividly colorful and often adorned with ornate gilded frames, Wiley’s large-scale figurative paintings, which are illuminated with a barrage of baroque or rococo decorative patterns, posit young black men, fashioned in urban attire, within the field of power reminiscent of Renaissance artists such as Tiepolo and Titian.

By applying the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, wealth, prestige, and history to subject matter drawn from the urban fabric, Wiley makes his subjects and their stylistic references juxtaposed inversions of each other, forcing ambiguity and provocative perplexity to pervade his imagery. Wiley’s larger-than-life figures disturb and interrupt tropes of portrait painting, often blurring the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation and the critical portrayal of masculinity and physicality as it pertains to the view of black and brown young men.

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Kehinde with collector Swizz Beats at the opening ceremonies

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