Following in the tradition of the great Renaissance portrait artists, Kehinde Wiley incorporates symbols from religion, mythology, and allegory into his works, creating a sense of classical beauty and timelessness. In the 2003 painting entitled Passing/Posing (Female Prophet Deborah), a young black man floats over the canvas like an ethereal being. Wiley achieved this effect by denying any illusion of depth. As in most of Wiley's paintings, the background is created with a single color, resulting in a flat surface that emphasizes the subject’s central position and monumental scale and thus accentuates his assertive stance. The title Passing/Posing refers to the tension created by the desire to attain the privilege and power traditionally associated with whiteness while preserving self-identity, invoking a sense of irony that reflects both the historical and present crises of black male identity.
Religious gestures convey the importance of Wiley’s subjects, transforming them into icons of something larger than themselves. They stare emotionlessly out of the paintings, directly confronting the viewers’ gazes in an act that signifies their own power and presence. The interaction may be either positive or negative, depending on the viewers’ perceptions. In either case, the paintings’ sense of infinity and otherworldliness stands in direct tension with the subjects’ everyday style and emblems of popular culture.
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