Passing/Posing: Kehinde Wiley Paintings
- Dates: October 8, 2004 through February 5, 2005
- Collections: Contemporary Art
- Location: This exhibition is no longer on view in Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing, 4th Floor
- Description: Passing/Posing: Kehinde Wiley Paintings. [10/08/2004 - 02/05/2005]. Installation view.
- Citation: Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Painting and Sculpture. (P&S_E_2004_Wiley)
- Source: color slide 1 x 1.5 in. (3 x 4 cm)
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Passing/Posing Kehinde Wiley Paintings
Painting is about the world that we live in. Black men live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.
Historically, the role of portraiture has been not only to depict a subject’s image, but also to communicate ideas about status, wealth, and power. During the eighteenth century, for example, major patrons from the Catholic church and the aristocratic class commissioned portraits in part to signify their importance in society. Although many artists and critics today question the relevance of figurative painting, in Passing/Posing, the American artist Kehinde Wiley (born in Los Angeles in 1977) demonstrates the impact that can still be created through this traditional art form.
The inspiration for the paintings in these galleries began while Wiley was a participant in the Artist-in-Residence Program at the Studio Museum in Harlem. After picking up a police sketch of a young black man from a neighborhood sidewalk, he began to examine the negative portrayals of black men in mainstream media. Passing/Posing—which is also the name Wiley gave to an acclaimed series of paintings within this exhibition—refers to the tension created by the need to attain the privilege and power traditionally associated with whiteness and the desire to preserve one’s identity and define oneself as an individual. It also alludes to Kehinde Wiley’s specific efforts to redefine and affirm black identity through a new brand of portraiture: the depiction of young men from Harlem as saints and angels, in poses inspired by Renaissance and Baroque paintings.
Wiley’s subjects—dressed in their everyday clothing—seem to float over flat, brightly colored backgrounds that suggest infinite space; they are transformed into icons of beauty and desire. Decorative designs reminiscent of Islamic and French Rococo façade ornamentation imply a surrounding elegance. In creating these monumental paintings, the artist borrows poses, imagery, and titles from works by the Italian master painters Titian (1490–1576) and Tiepolo (1727–1804), as well as the British artists Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) and John Constable (1776–1837). Although Wiley lists these artists as influences, he also seeks to explore the disconnect between the world they depict and the world of contemporary urban black culture.
The works in these galleries provide an alternative vision of portrait painting—one that may be a direct response to those who question the genre’s ability to communicate relevant ideas and concepts.
Tumelo Mosaka, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art
Kehinde Wiley's Artistic Process
The young men in these paintings are simply strangers that Wiley approached on the street. After showing photographs of his works to potential subjects, Wiley would then offer to paint their portraits. Those who agreed were invited to the artist’s studio to look through a collection of art history books and select poses from well-known artworks. Wiley photographed his subjects in their selected poses, and they left. The entire interaction between artist and subject lasted anywhere from five to thirty minutes, a vastly different experience than the traditional portrait process, which often requires days or weeks and can become a physical strain on the subject. Wiley used the photographs as the basis for the portraits, whose titles come directly from the source paintings that inspired them. Although the subjects of these paintings determined certain aspects of how they were depicted—specifically, their poses and clothing—the backgrounds and settings were strictly the artist’s choice.
Wiley intentionally maintains the anonymity of his subjects as a way to detach personal identities from the tradition of portraiture and to forge a different approach, creating mythologies and fantasies that celebrate the vibrancy of contemporary urban culture.