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Channeling and Changing Art History: Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley, after completing degrees at the San Francisco Art Institute and a graduate program at Yale, has been making waves within the art community since the early 2000’s with his socially charged works.

Looking at a Kehinde Wiley painting can transport you through time, recalling renaissance-styled portraiture with modern embellishments. A Wiley piece can simultaneously be rooted in the past, inspired by the present, and push the conversations of race, gender, and global art forward. I first encountered this experience of time travel at the Seattle Art Museum on a sunny Saturday afternoon last summer. I was meandering through the exhibits while fighting a sudden onset of the flu, and had taken a break on a bench on the second floor. I sat down feeling light-headed and tired, trying to feel well enough to actually enjoy both being out of Portland and in a splendid museum I had never been to before. It was from that bench that I locked eyes with Anthony of Padua.

Anthony is a young black man dressed in green military-esque attire and standing in a very classical setting mixed with a background of opulence and splendor. It took more than a moment for me to decide what to focus on. The portrait subject, the clustered floral inspired background, or the painting as a whole: seeing each piece as either influencing or combatting another. Roberta Smith wrote in a 2015 article for The New York Times that the “[m]ostly floral designs, they curl across the figures, confusing foreground and background.” This effect tampers with the traditional style and changes the depth of the paintings. Eventually, I settled on the young man’s calm face.

In further research, I discovered that, what I thought at the time to be a unique exchange of modern meets classical, Wiley has actually made commonplace with his years of work. It is, in fact, his aesthetic and his chief method. I naively thought this technique of painting to be rarer. Perhaps that speaks to the need for Wiley’s mission: to add black and brown bodies into a white-washed Euro-centric history. Whereas most paintings done in this style are expected to be of wealthy and white aristocrats, Wiley both usurps and confronts that notion – one assumes – in order to address the reality of white western history downgrading and even erasing black history. Roberta Smith also wrote that:

Since 2001, Mr. Wiley has been inserting black individuals into the generally lily-white history of Western portraiture, casting them in poses — including on rearing steeds — derived from Renaissance and old master paintings of saints, kings, emperors, prophets, military leaders, dandies and burghers. Usually these works have titles identical or similar to their sources, among them “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps,” and “Colonel Platoff on his Charger,” creating the delicious sense that Mr. Wiley’s updates are perfectly normal, which in a way they are.

It is a modern dialogue with old art that Wiley is creating. He is continuing the discourse on racial and identity politics through his art and his artistic methods.

This effort is something I appreciate because it forces me to reflect on how a white-washed version of history that was taught to me in school distorted the real world – both in present and past times. I was raised in a small Mormon and conservative town with almost no racial diversity, which has caused me to have a slower understanding of what systemic racism entails. I was insulated from it.

Much like the great or well known classical artists, Kehinde Wiley uses a team to produce his work – something that causes some scandal among critics yet is shrugged off by Wiley when citing the common practice throughout history, even saying in a 2013 GQ article with Wyatt Mason that:

the discomfort with a large-scale art practice, comes from a myth in an artistic process that never existed. Rubens, Michelangelo: Both had large studios with many assistants. There is a long line of artists who work with other artists to realize a larger vision than is possible with one hand. Education in art history taught me this, as did being steeped in the reality of painting. My interest is in completing an image that is spectacular beyond belief. My fidelity is to the image and the art and not to the bragging rights of making every stroke on every flower. I’m realistic. It’s not romantic, but that romance never existed.

I have always been shocked at the idea that Michelangelo did not in fact paint every stroke, yet also shocked that the idea was not more commonplace. An architect cannot build to scale on their own and sometimes neither can artists paint on their own.

While most of his body of work consists of male figures, Wiley in 2011 started to add female subjects to his art. On his personal site, he says, “The reason why I am painting women now is in order to come to terms with depictions of gender and the way it is featured art historically--a means to broaden the conversation. Any consideration of male power in painting naturally includes the presence of women within that dialogue.” It would seem that while his own art sought to combat the notion of classical art needing to be chiefly about white men and replacing them with black and brown men, he had neglected to change the gender roles as well. Something he is starting to work at.

In Mason’s GQ article, interview and travelogue, Wyatt Mason acknowledges one of Wiley’s critics by saying:

While Wiley’s critics acknowledge his talents and his seriousness, some begrudge him the racial politics of his mission on aesthetic grounds. "I don’t think that they’re terrible paintings," art critic Ben Davis, a vocal Wiley detractor, told me, "but they don’t benefit from close scrutiny. I find them cartoonish and the painting itself flat. It seems very formulaic. If you think of really good portraiture, you get a sense of emotion, paintings that have a spark of individuality where something of the sitter is captured. Wiley’s formula smothers that. He’s releasing product lines. ’Here I am releasing my Ethiopia line, my Israel line.’ He’s not producing a new critical image of black identity. He’s an art director selling a formula, a style, that can be translated into a lot of different mediums."

Wiley has assumed a celebrity status in his art, but more importantly than that he has created a system, almost a manufacture of this brand of art, much like a highly-praised classical artist such as Michaelangelo. Whether or not Wiley has created an assembly line of art though isn’t important to me, the way it so dismissively seems to be to Davis. What is of importance is that Kehinde Wiley has taken a predominantly white style of art, and made it more real and accessible to both white and non-white people. That is something to be celebrated and acknowledged. The dialogue between racially charged history and present is stirred by Wiley’s portfolio and others now have a better chance to follow and be seen because of his work. The movement is building, and it moved me that Saturday afternoon. It transfixed me, caused me to wonder, to research, and to question not only the beauty to be found in art, but the ugliness it can also reveal.

Stay Backwords,

Phillip Trey

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