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.
By repopulating art-historical imagery with young black men, Kehinde Wiley has been infusing histrionic poses from the past with an edgy street dynamism for almost a decade now. The result of his conceptual project has been a kind of hip-hop baroque, where familiar and gaudy signposts of contemporary culture disrupt the social and political hierarchy inherent in much traditional portrait painting. And while he may fall short of inventing new icons, Wiley has certainly skewed the visual paradigms in which young African-American men play marginalized and often menacing roles.
For â??Down,â? his latest show at Deitch Projects, eight large-scale canvases easily evoked the grandeur of European masterpieces. Using Holbeinâ??s The Dead Christ in the Tomb as a jumping-off point, Wiley navigates through the vocabulary of the warrior in repose, thereafter allowing his models (as is his usual practice) to choose specific artworks to reenact. The poses here are more vulnerable than the puffed-up stances with which the young artist established his reputation.
Wiley is most successful when depicting in oil the vibrant contemporary street wear of his models with a painstaking skill that borders on the fetishistic. The bright orange hoodie in The Virgin Martyr of St. Cecilia (all works 2008) is a playful substitute for Stefano Madernoâ??s original marble shroud. The elongated end of a yellow belt dangles suggestively at the figureâ??s crotch and is echoed in the loose laces of his Nikes. These elements of style help refine the dichotomy between this evocative masculine image and its very feminine source.
In Morpheus, which draws on a Jean-Antoine Houdon sculpture, the sitterâ??s gaze is both seductive and mischievous. All the accoutrements of hip-hop are on full display: baseball cap askew, bling around his neck, sagging jeans that reveal patterned folds of boxer shorts and the most delicate hint of skin. Ironically, accessories like these feel rather naturalistic in contrast to the elaborate floral backgrounds that seem to be trying to break loose from their fussy compositional positions.
Although his handling of paint can be slightly flat, Wiley is still able to imbue his figuresâ?? flesh with an almost religious glow. Yet, however imperial the pictorial setup may be, the eroticism inherent to figures in repose flirts with the farcicalâ??just as the hyperbole of hip-hop often borders on the ridiculous. While the young men in these paintings seem more than comfortable in their own skin, it should be interesting to see how their self-images will evolve in the age of Obama. Likewise, Wileyâ??s depiction of young African-Americans is approaching a crossroads, as the very picture of black power in America moves from music-video fantasy to a daily televised reality.