In this painting, Kehinde Wiley boldly recasts Napoleon as a contemporary black warrior. In his reference to Jacques-Louis David’s painting Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass, Wiley creates a tension with traditional art history and its neglect of black subjects. His portrait symbolically reassigns value to the sitter, asking us to recall remarkable black leaders such as Toussaint L’Ouverture from Haiti, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela, whose images appear far less frequently, if at all, in histories of art.
—Tumelo Mosaka, independent curator
Kehinde Wiley’s series of reclining figures offers some of his most eroticized images. In many ways, this is a result of the tradition on which he has drawn. In those older works, the recumbent and vulnerable body was often used as a vehicle for the sensual. Take Femme piquée par un serpent, which refers to the scandal-inciting 1847 sculpture by Auguste Clésinger of a woman supposedly dying from a poisonous snakebite. The sculpture was highly praised for its sensual naturalism, but many viewers and critics wondered whether her voluptuous writhing was, in fact, evidence of her death.
Wiley adapted the famously contorted torso of Clésinger’s female nude to show both the rear and front of his model: the viewer is confronted with both the alluring expanse of the white underwear and, at the same time, the searching face with open eyes and mouth. But the titanic recumbent figures in this series both incite and scoff at attempts to reduce them to mere erotic objects, and the vulnerability of their sources has been transmuted into confidence by a scale that is nothing less than heroic. —David J. Getsy, Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Though Kehinde Wiley is best known for his painted portraits, here he shifts from painting to sculpture. In both the lift and turn of the young man’s head and the open V of his zippered collar, this bronze refers to an eighteenth-century marble bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon.
Yet in many other ways, Wiley’s work could hardly be more different: in substituting male for female, black for white, and present for past, he upends the earlier sculpture even as he quotes it. His radical reinterpretation encourages us to examine the stereotypes that can be found in portraiture. —Rujeko Hockley, Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum
Consider Kehinde Wiley and the model in the studio, poring over art history books together to choose an image that will serve as the source for a new painting, in which the model will replace some long-departed exemplar of European privilege and power. The model was previously unknown to the artist, but struck him—perhaps by the strong cut of his jaw, perhaps by his leonine confidence—as a fitting candidate for the elaborate and sophisticated impersonation in which he was hired to participate.The model, who remains unnamed, is from Harlem (New York City), as was the original subject, Willem van Heythuysen, a Dutch wool merchant from Haarlem (the Netherlands), whose portrait was painted by Frans Hals in 1625. As Hals’s bravura portraits defined the Golden Age of Holland, Wiley’s painting—at once parody and tribute—gives image to our own age’s conflicted relationship to privilege, power, and the past.
—John B. Ravenal, Executive Director, DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, Massachusetts
Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic
February 20–May 24, 2015
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 exhibition includes an overview of the artist’s prolific fourteen-year career and features sixty paintings and sculptures.
Wiley’s signature portraits of everyday men and women riff on specific paintings by Old Masters, replacing the European aristocrats depicted in those paintings with contemporary black subjects, drawing attention to the absence of African Americans from historical and cultural narratives.
The subjects in Wiley’s paintings often wear sneakers, hoodies, and baseball caps, gear associated with hip-hop culture, and are set against contrasting ornate decorative backgrounds that evoke earlier eras and a range of cultures.
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.
The exhibition includes a selection of Wiley’s World Stage paintings, begun in 2006, in which he takes his street casting process to other countries, widening the scope of his collaboration.
Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is organized by Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Curator of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum. A fully illustrated catalogue published by the Brooklyn Museum and DelMonico Books • Prestel accompanies the exhibition.
This exhibition is made possible by the Henry Luce Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Grey Goose Vodka. Additional support is provided by Sotheby’s, Ana and Lenny Gravier, Sean Kelly Gallery, Stephen Friedman Gallery, John and Amy Phelan, Roberts & Tilton, and Pamela K. and William A. Royall, Jr.