Sunday, October 25, 2015

Kehinde Wiley

Saint Amelie by Kehinde Wiley - stained glass 2014
This stained glass designed by Kehinde Wiley so captivated me when I ran across it in the February issue of Smithsonian Magazine. The article was featuring some of the artists on display in a new "Hip-Hop" exhibition opening at The National Portrait Gallery. The others represented did not catch my attention like Wiley's work, described as "vibrant large-scale paintings of rappers like LL Cool J and Grandmaster Flash...that are modeled after classic portraits by John Singer Sargent, Frans Hal and Ingres, among others." It is true that my intrigue does stem from the juxtaposition of a familiar classic setting with a totally modern subject. But also, I saw such beauty in taking a person so ordinary and everyday-looking and elevating him to a position of reverence and respect by placing him in the position of a Madonna or saint in a stained glass window. It spoke volumes to me, although I'm not sure it is the same volumes the artist had in mind. The image was so compelling that I tore the page from the magazine and filed it away. For some reason, I could see using it as the basis for a collage keying off this idea of we are all saints.

More recently, I stumbled upon Wiley again through Austin Kleon's Tumblr here, seeing that he is currently showing at The Modern museum in Forth Worth, TX - a long way from New York. Both sites feature paintings by Wiley, and I find I am still captivated by his work. In reading more about his background, I am additionally impressed with his art education and training, and how much research and attention to detail goes into each of his works of art. It explains a lot about how he arrived at this unmistakable voice and the ability to execute it so well. Here is a partial description of the exhibit and Wiley from The Modern website:

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth presents Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, an overview highlighting the range of the artist's prolific 14-year career and comprising approximately 60 works. The exhibition begins with early examples of paintings inspired by Wiley’s observations of street life in Harlem; these images of African-American men mark the onset of his focused exploration of the male figure. In subsequent work, Wiley further examines the European tradition of portraiture, taking specific paintings by renowned masters such as Titian, Van Dyck, and Manet and replacing the historical subjects with contemporary, young black men sporting fashionable urban gear. These likenesses are set against ornate, decorative backgrounds on large canvases — part of Wiley's signature style — in order to raise issues of class in addition to race and gender.

I must admit, I had not thought in terms of "race and gender" and "class" issues when lingering over this stained glass work and now these paintings from the exhibit. I simply loved the thought that each of us, no matter how lowly, no matter our circumstances, could reach this ideal of peace and serenity and adulation. However, now I have another way to view his work, and I can see how expertly he does raise these issues. It is art both elegant and thought provoking.

To learn more about Kehinde Wiley and see more of his art, go to


Sherrie Spangler said...

I especially love his works featured in the Tumblr photos. It looks like the figures are emerging from flowered fabric. Thanks for introducing me to him.

The Idaho Beauty said...

Aren't they wonderful? Yes, indeed, I thought of fabric too. I also thought of the painting Lady in a Garden by Frederick Carl Frieseke