KEHINDE WILEY PAINTS “A NEW REPUBLIC”
An artist’s provocative commentary on race and power in pop culture
by Maria Raposo
Kehinde Wiley’s body of works is more than pop-art paintings of rappers remixed with a fusion of historic painting styles. At first glance, you can easily dismiss it as decorative dressing for the mainstream, but at a closer look, Wiley’s paintings reflect issues of race and inequality in our contemporary society. Even before the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Wiley had been working over 10 years to reconstruct the image of the black man in America.
Taking his subjects directly from the street, he casts his models into his large-scale conceptually provocative portraiture. Wiley presents them as proud young African-American men in surroundings found in classical white western paintings established throughout the history of art. Set against a heavily patterned background, he replaces iconic images of kings and military leaders and even saints, with confident urban black youths decked out in the latest hip-hop street style, sporting baseball caps and hoodies. Through the use of heroic poses, he recreates the image of the black male as a stately prince with a modern day dandy attitude.
Kehinde Wiley in his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio with his paintings.
Anthony of Padua, 2013. Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum; gift of the Contemporary Collectors Forum, 2013.
The theatrical poses and objects in Wiley’s portraits are based on well-known images of powerful figures drawn from Renaissance and old master paintings.
Sharrod Hosten, After Sir Joshua Reynolds Portrait of Samuel Johnson from the Black Light series, 2009 by Kehinde Wiley.
Right: Kofi Graham, After El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) The Annunciation from the Black Light series, 2009 by Kehinde Wiley.
Right: Mark Shavers After Sir Anthony van Dycks Triple Portrait of Charles I, from the Black Light series, 2009 by Kehinde Wiley.
George, Lord Digby and William, Lord Russell, 2007,Oil on Canvas by Kehinde Wiley.
The artist often uses similar titles from old masters painting to add a sense of nobility to his young urban subjects.
Triple Portrait of Charles, 2007, Oil on Canvas by Kehinde Wiley.
Napoleon leading the army over the Alps from series Rumor of Wars, 2007 by Kehinde Wiley.
Kern Alexander Study I, 2011 by Kehinde Wiley.
“A New Republic” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum from Feb. 20 through May 24, brooklynmuseum.org.
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