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.