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.
August 8, 2004
The first museum exhibition of the critically acclaimed painter Kehinde Wiley, whose portraits of African American men combine elements of hip-hop culture with an Old Master’s influence, will be presented in Infinite Mobility: Paintings by Kehinde Wiley, on view October 8, 2004, through February 5, 2005, at the Brooklyn Museum.
The Museum recently added to its permanent collection with the purchase of Wiley’s Passing/Posing, a cycle of four large-scale oil paintings surrounding a 25 by-10-foot ceiling painting of seemingly tumbling breakdancers; the life-size heroic figures mingle fantasy and realism.
The works in Infinite Mobility: Paintings by Kehinde Wiley incorporate a range of art historical and vernacular styles, from French rococo to today’s urban street. Wiley collapses history and style into a unique contemporary vision. He describes his approach as “interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit.” He makes figurative paintings that “quote historical sources and position young black men within that field [of power].”
The vividly colorful paintings, often with ornate gilded frames, depict young black men—in sweatshirts, sports jerseys, or baseball caps turned backward—posed in a manner reminiscent of Renaissance artists such as Tiepolo or Titian, and adorned with baroque or rococo decorative patterns.
“I use French rococo influences, with its garishness and vulgarity, to complement the flashy attire and “display of material consumption” evident in hip-hop culture, which mirror the same baroque sensibilities that permeated European Renaissance painting,” said Wiley.
Using models recruited from the Harlem neighborhood where he worked, Wiley’s portraits examine the aestheticizing of masculinity and the use of supercharged color, iconography, and ornamentation to reflect the garishness of hip-hop culture and capitalism. By applying the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, history, wealth, power, and prestige to subject matter drawn from the urban fabric in which he is embedded, Wiley presents these young men as both heroic and pathetic, autonomous and manipulated.
Wiley is a New York-based artist who was born and raised in Los Angeles. He earned a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA from Yale University. From an early age he was influenced by eighteenthcentury British masters and the artists of the Royal Academy. Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable were two of his favorites. Among his contemporaries he cites Kerry James Marshall, Betty Saar, Lisa Yuskavage, and Glenn Ligon as influences.
In the spring of 2001, Wiley moved to New York to participate in the Artist-in-Residence Program at the Studio Museum in Harlem. On his way to the museum one day, he noticed a piece of litter on the sidewalk that turned out to be a police wanted poster with the picture of a young African American man. He took it home and tacked it to the wall, where it hung for a year, ultimately becoming the motivation for many of his paintings.
Infinite Mobility: Paintings by Kehinde Wiley is organized by Tumelo Mosaka, assistant curator in the Brooklyn Museum’s Department of Contemporary Art. A full-color catalog will accompany the exhibition.