Prepare to be blown away. Walk into the Kehinde Wiley exhibition at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and you’re greeted with a huge portrait in classical style. But, just a minute, that face – it’s Michael Jackson!
The contemporary figure is set in a most traditional setting – an equestrian painting by Peter Paul Rubens being the inspiration for the work. Other than replacing King Philip II of Spain, there are many details recognizable from the Rubens masterwork. And Wiley is only following in the master’s footsteps – his painting borrowed heavily from and earlier portrait of the king by Tizano Vecelli, known as Titian.
Wiley’s work is not a direct copy – it’s more an homage. He’s added details like a rosebush in one corner. Upon closer inspection, there’s a snail on a leaf. Everything is realistic – but not photographic. And this first painting prepares you for a world of color, rich fabrics, fantastic frames and more portraits of everyday people in elegant and fanciful settings.
All of the subjects are people of color – like Kehinde himself. His training was classical including a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale. His familiarity with great works of art also brought the realization that many of these great paintings were of people with power, prestige and position – and they didn’t look like him.
It would be an oversimplification of his philosophy to assume that his paintings are just a substitution of subjects. You have to see this exhibit, read the accompanying materials and watch videos of his trips to other parts of the world to begin to appreciate the complexity of his work.
Wiley chose his models from people he saw on the street. He invited his subjects into his studio and showed them photos of historic paintings. Collaborating with them to choose a background, Wiley then photographed the subject in an appropriate pose – in clothes most often of their own choosing. The result is an amazing blend of classic and contemporary.
The works are compelling on many levels. They call into question issues of race, gender, gender-identity, class and influence in society. Or you can just enjoy the interplay of color, texture and treatment. I have to admit I was most intrigued by the meticulous and elaborate backgrounds and the ability of the artist to create subjects you felt you could reach out and touch – to stroke the skin or feel the gauzy fabrics.
Take time to watch the five videos of Wiley’s journeys to Africa, Haiti, France, Israel and Jamaica. To see them all takes just over an hour. These chronicle some of his explorations for a series of paintings, “The World Stage.” In these he not only examines local culture but investigates the influences of other cultures.
The paintings themselves stand alone as a reason to visit the exhibition. The thought behind them and the skill with which they were produced help the visitor understand why, at age 40 with a fourteen-year professional career, Wiley is heralded as one of the premier artists of this century. A retrospective at such an early point in an artist’s work is unusual but so is this artist.
Works in the exhibition include not only paintings but sculpture and stained glass. The large glass panels again reference historic works. One, “Arms of Hugo von Hohenlandenberg as Bishop of Constance with Angel Supporters” references a 1500 work by Zurich glass painter and glazier Lukas Zeiner. Much of the internal framing of the original is echoed in Wiley’s interpretation. But his subjects are, again, black men in contemporary dress. I was only able to relate one figure’s checkered pockets to a point in the Zeiner work.
I should have purchased the catalogue in hopes of learning more of the symbolism within Wiley’s works. His knowledge and background studies far exceed anything I can claim.
The best thing I can do is stop right here and suggest you go to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and see for yourself. The exhibition is on display until September 10. That gives me time to go back and enjoy it again!