New York Kehinde Wiley paints oversize, hyper-realistic portraits of young, mainly black men like himself. Dressed in the garb of the global hip-hop scene, the men possess the kind of mannered stance and look of self-possession affected by the rich, powerful, pale-skinned men in earlier paintings by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Titian and Ingres. Elaborate, historically based ornamental backgrounds wind into the foreground, further linking the subjects to the past and gently embedding them in gardens of vine and flower motifs. For the series of 14 canvases at the Jewish Museum, titled “The World Stage: Israel” (all 2011), Wiley designed ornate, hand-carved dark-wood frames topped by pairs of lions, which further augment the paintings’ ambience of wealth and authority.
Wiley’s portraits are based on his photographs of young men on the fringes of urban culture around the world. Traveling to Israel in 2010, he concentrated on immigrant Ethiopian Jews, dark-skinned native-born Jews and Arab Israelis, whom, in his paintings, he surrounds with decorative elements based on Jewish ceremonial art. Also included in the exhibition were 11 papercuts and textiles that the artist selected from the museum’s collection.
Wiley is not the first artist to paint black men into white history. However, when Robert Colescott first exhibited his George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975), it came off as a heavy-handed visual joke—as did many of Wiley’s earlier pieces, particularly his equestrian series. Since then, Wiley’s work has evolved considerably, with the result that the integration of cultural references and time frames is now more nuanced, and the pieces hold their own without the need for extensive backstory.
The idea for the exhibition arose when the museum acquired Wiley’s Alios Itzhak (2011), a painting incorporating the design of an 1877 Ukrainian papercut from its collection of these intricate objects, which were used to decorate the eastern walls of Jewish homes. The 8-foot-high painting, in vibrant oil and gold enamel, has a border of mythical animals and features a slender, short-haired young man in jeans and a bright blue T-shirt emblazoned with a futuristically rendered electric drill. The blue of his shirt is echoed in tattoolike decorative vines that curl across his bare arms. His slightly provocative pose and arch gaze (like Itzhak, most of Wiley’s subjects make eye contact with the viewer) suggest yet another cultural overlay, that of the gay world of which Wiley is also a part. Wiley adapts his ornamental sources to fit his vision: four pillars, white in the original papercut, are now pink and tumescent; the long, outthrust tongues on a pair of leopards flanking the man’s shoulders beg for a suggestive reading; and what initially looks like a formal portrait can be seen as a riot of sexual desire.
Besides the painting, there was another star in this exhibition: the museum itself, a sumptuous Fifth Avenue mansion, once the home of a prominent Jewish businessman and philanthropist. Wiley’s canvases, which have sometimes looked flat and illustrative in pristine white box galleries, are energized by the dark wood paneling and carved moldings. They were the paintings’ ideal foil, making the marriage of present time to interpreted and genuine history complete.
Photo: Kehinde Wiley: Alios Itzhak, from the series “The World Stage: Israel,” 2011, oil and gold enamel on canvas, 96 by 72 inches; at the Jewish Museum.