Boldness defines the artwork of Kehinde Wiley. His pieces catch the eye from across a room declaring here I am, you aren’t allowed to just pass by me. Deal with it. This bravado crystallizes in Seattle Art Museum’s Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic as an opulent, nearly 100 square foot painting of Michael Jackson riding a majestic steed like a member of 14th century Spanish royalty (Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson)) greets visitors. It’s a holy crap ego burst with a comedic edge that recognizes the ridiculousness of its spectacle. While not necessarily emblematic of Wiley’s work as a whole, the painting establishes the sense of pop grandeur that makes A New Republic an immensely accessible must-see exhibit.
Spanning his 15-year career, A New Republic features Wiley’s paintings, sculptures, stained glass, and documentary videos detailing his methodology. The artist built his reputation on the streets of New York City with his paintings that portray young black men in the style of (and often with the direct poses and titles of) classical European aristocratic portraiture, but set against colorful patterned backdrops. He employed a street casting process where he culled his models by walking around Harlem and asking guys whose looks he liked to come into his studio to pose in their own clothes.
This distinctive style allows Wiley to pack each painting with social commentary while maintaining an effortless appeal. As hip-hop turned black American culture and style into a worldwide culture, images like Morpheus subvert the “conspicuous fraud” of modern black masculinity that’s tied to hypersexuality, a focus on sports, and general antisocial behavior. There’s the slightest discomfort for the models (Randerson Romualdo Cordeiro), which allows Wiley to showcase their male beauty removed from its position of patriarchal dominance.
A kinetic energy exists in Wiley’s ideas, whether spread colorfully across a canvas or expressed though his own words. He’s a man that can seamlessly transition from speaking about Josef Albers’s color theory (Mugshot Profile in Blue (Diptych)) to the color palate of Martha Stewart’s 1999 home collection (Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence)), or shift from discussing Biblical coding to the convergence of his influences coming together in, as he puts it, a “magical clusterfuck.”
Wiley creates and talks about his work with a striking directness. There isn’t a veil. He doesn’t meander in florid descriptions or keep messages hidden. There’s a confidence and bluntness about him when discussing the thematic elements and art history embedded in each artwork. That’s not to say there isn’t depth. Each piece is immensely layered, but Wiley accomplishes these layers without pretentiousness or a need to hide the meanings.
Employing the loud floral patterns as backdrops makes the subjects pop while also separating them from a grounded reality. It underscores that this is presentational art, approach it as such. Little details like the tiny sperm swimming in the background of Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, comments on the blusterous masculinity of both the subject and the classic European portraiture style without seeming like its too cheekily undercutting either. The clarity and command of what every detail means and what art history he’s drawing upon with each.
There’s deception in his work, but it doesn’t carry an air of dishonesty. He claims that while 80 percent of his models are street cast, he also peppers in a few subjects from modeling agencies. He won’t say which, just to keep his viewing audience off-balance and questioning. It doesn’t feel like you’re being duped, more that it’s Wiley’s way of saying you think you “get” everything about this painting? Unlikely, but let’s say you do. Now let me plant the tiniest seed of doubt. It will keep it interesting for the both of us.
A New Republic also delves into Wiley’s religious themed work. While Saint John the Baptist and his other small-scale paintings encased in golden wood from the Iconic series feel intimate and personal compared to most of his large works, his experiments with stained glass prove to be inescapable eye-catchers. The light that emerges from behind the windows grants the street cast subjects a momentary divinity. It’s a sort of sainthood of those that would otherwise be forgotten (Saint Remi, Saint Amelie, etc.). It’s not so much low art meeting high art, but rather low status meeting the highest (and holiest) status.
Eventually, A New Republic finds its way to female subjects. Wiley claims that it took him so long to focus on women for two reasons: He felt he still had things to express about black masculinity and he purely rebelled against people’s constant badgering for his take on the female form. Once he finally shifted focus, the images crafted for his An Economy of Grace series stand in stark contrast to the male work that proceeded it. While there’s a constant element of subversion in this male works, he treats women with reverence. They’re regal and authoritative. He’s not placing them in discomforting positions, but ones that emphasize their strength as an element of beauty. While the men wore their own casual street wear, Wiley commissioned high-end designers to create gowns specifically tailored for the women. Paintings like Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, which portrays a street cast woman facing away in a majestic green gown, capture untouchable levels of elegance.
While Wiley gained acclaim displaying his work in Brooklyn and Harlem, removing the works from their local context and placing them in Seattle allows for a different examination. Wiley’s cherry-picked black American culture doesn’t surround Seattle Art Museum. These are no longer individuals one might actually bump into on the street outside. The works no longer serve as an amplification of their surroundings, but a glance into an aesthetic realm that seem a world away (even if similar stands exist mere neighborhoods away).
A New Republic mirrors the best aspect of Wiley’s work—it manages to be equally rewarding whether one takes a momentary glance or settles in for deep analytical inspection. Thoughtful high art rarely manages to be so instantly engaging on a visceral level. A New Republic is nourishing sugar. Take a taste.
Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic
Thru May 8, Seattle Art Museum, $20