Story and photo by Floyd Alvin Galloway
The opening of the Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic exhibit on October 7, at the Phoenix Art Museum brought a record number of people. Over 7,000 attended the First Friday events at the museum. With Arizona Opera, pop-up live performances, portrait photogra-phy, Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra, poetry reading of Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman, the night was a magical one.
Kehinde Wiley is one of the leading American artists to emerge in the last decade and he has been ingeniously reworking the grand portraiture traditions. Since ancient times the portrait has been tied to the representation of power, and in European courts and churches, artists and their patrons developed a complex repository of postures and poses and refined a symbolic language. This language, woven into all aspects of a portrait, described the sitter’s influence and power, virtue and character, or profession. In his consideration of portrait traditions, Wiley has been especially drawn to the grand aristocratic portraits of the 18th century.
The artist began his first series of portraits in the early 2000s during a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. He set out to photo-graph and recast assertive and self-empowered young men from the neighborhood in the style and manner of traditional history painting. Since then he has also painted rap and sports stars but for the most part his attention has focused on ordinary men of color in their everyday clothes. Trained at Yale in the 1990s, Wiley was steeped in the discussions concerning identity politics during this decade and he brings his personal insights and theoretical studies to his practice.
Wiley’s portraits are highly stylized and staged, and draw attention to the dialectic between a history of aristocratic representa-tion and the portrait as a statement of power and the individual’s sense of empowerment. His portraits whether enormous or bit size uses vibrant, exquisite colors that capture the eye and energizes the soul. They bring an intimate look into spirit of the individual and the vision of the artist, even in the bronze sculptures and video piece on smiling.
The works presented in Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic raise questions about race, gender, and the politics of representation by portraying contemporary African American men and women using the conventions of traditional European portraiture. The ex-hibition includes an overview of the artist’s prolific fourteen-year career and features 60 paintings and sculptures.
Through the process of “street casting,” Wiley invites individuals, often strangers he encounters on the street, to sit for portraits. In this collaborative process, the model chooses a reproduction of a painting from a book and reenacts the pose of the painting’s figure. By inviting the subjects to select a work of art, Wiley gives them a measure of control over the way they’re portrayed, allowing them to have a voice in the telling of their individual, unique story.
“As you all may know painting is about light. It’s about how light bounces off of objects and into our eyes,” Wiley said during a tour of the exhibit before the official opening.
Standing in front of his portraits on stained glass, Wiley noted the presence of light and the spirituality it has with stained glass.
In reference to the somewhat exclusivity of museums he noted, “There’s a difference between the sacred and the profane. In museums we have a sacred space for culture out there. There is popular culture with moving parts, but in here we are going to refine, oil down all those things we consider our best parts, our best merits so that our kids can learn what we have before us, our culture.
Wiley says it’s great to have greatness and exceptionalism in a museum, but it should be inclusive. We have a type of art making here that says yes to says yes to gatekeeping, yes to standards of exceptionalism, but also yes to a type of inclusiveness. Yes to people who happen to look like me up on the walls.”
Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is organized by the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit runs through January 8 at the Phoenix Art Museum.