Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, currently on display at the Modern Museum of Art in Fort Worth, highlights the artist’s fruitful 14-year career.  Every body of work, a snapshot from each series, is represented within the exhibition to give the viewer a comprehensive walk through Wiley’s oeuvre, thus far.

Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) is fascinated with the intimacy of the portrait.  Anyone unfamiliar with his work quickly learns the artist is enamored with the portrayal of the human form, of another person depicted within an artwork as the focus; so enamored, in fact, he has spent the entirety of his efforts as a working artist on it.  His work questions the power of the sitter, the individual the viewer observes, oftentimes standing on the shoulders of history as he smartly appropriates work from the masters like Manet, Van Dyck and Titian, removing the recognizable historic figure and replacing it with a contemporary sitter – young men and women of color in fashionable clothes.  This became Wiley’s signature style as he was artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. 

"Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps", Brooklyn Museum

"Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps", Brooklyn Museum

Wiley is taking models of color from all over the world in their ordinary clothes and elevating them to a position of power by painting them in a classical style, creating an appeal for both the high art connoisseur and those who are not involved in the art world; his references are recognized in both spectrums.  Besides one large portrait of Michael Jackson (an appropriated image of “Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II, 1628,” by Paul Ruben) all of Wiley’s subjects are unknowns.  They are not presidents, royalty, or war heroes; they are the urban youth, many of whom Wiley finds on the street. 

"Anthony of Padua" Seattle Art Museum / "Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha" 

"Anthony of Padua" Seattle Art Museum / "Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha" 

The paintings, the majority of them very large works on canvas, are a collision of the photo-realistic subject and the painstakingly detailed background.  The backgrounds, either repeating colorful patterns or vast landscapes, are largely done by Wiley’s studio assistants, a trend that points back to the practices of the Renaissance that has become increasingly regular with modern artists and their studios.  Stained-glass windows, 14-carat gold icons, and bronze portrait bust works also display how young people around the world are existing in their space. 

"St. Gregory Palamas" Collection of Edward Tyler Nahem, New York / "Houdon Paul-Louis" Brooklyn Museum / "Saint Remi" Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris

"St. Gregory Palamas" Collection of Edward Tyler Nahem, New York / "Houdon Paul-Louis" Brooklyn Museum / "Saint Remi" Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris

A New Republic begins with Wiley’s early works, the paintings focusing on African American men in Harlem.   The exhibition then pulls the audience through the artist’s exploration of the portrait and what it can do as he explores its history and traditions within culture. The exhibition illustrates that Kehinde Wiley’s body of work is more than simply a contemporary amalgamation of no-name models and historic painting techniques.  Upon initial view the pieces are large, colorful, bright, and engaging, but Wiley’s paintings do more than please the eye and decorate a space.  As the viewer looks for what is actually happening on the canvas, the artworks reflect issues of race and inequality in contemporary society, they question authority, nobility and stature, they deal with gender roles and fashion. 

The exhibition invites the audience to question what each portrait has to say and what the portrait as a painting approach can accomplish.  It is a fantastic show and we highly recommend seeing it.  Better hurry, this one leaves the Modern this weekend!

-M.P. Callender