Kehinde Wiley: Colorful Realm
January 21 through April 8, 2023
By LITA BARRIE, March 2023
Kehinde Wiley radically changed the conventions of portraiture by staging African-American urban youths dressed in hoodies and sneakers to emulate the heroic, majestic poses of dignitaries set against backgrounds of floral, decorative patterns. For the first time, we saw self-empowered young black and brown people taken out of hip-hop street culture and inserted into Old Master museum culture – and we loved it. The unconscious assumptions about portraiture as the domain of privileged white people wearing powdered wigs, standing in grandiose poses, gloating in their self-importance and flaunting opulence, were all shattered. Portraiture did not have to be stodgy and boring, all-white and male-dominated; it could be vibrant, colorful, alive, joyful and hip. People of color loved it because they saw classical portraits monumentalizing people who looked like them for the first time in an art-historical context. Museum gatekeepers loved it because they recognized an exciting opportunity to make museums relevant and enticing to youth and ethnically diverse cultures.
Wiley built his early reputation on riffing off Renaissance, Baroque, French Rococo, Venetian and Dutch golden age eras in order to insert black faces into the canon of Western art. Other African-American painters like Kerry James Marshall and Amy Sherald have also used this strategy in a similar way. Wiley is also famous for painting celebrities such as LL Cool J, Questlove and Ice-T, as well as cultural figures like Spike Lee, but is best known for his commission to paint the presidential portrait of Barack Obama. Wiley is a flaneur who invites people he sees on the street who spark his interest to model for him. He directs the shoot and carefully helps his models to pose in a proud, dignified manner. Wiley has proven that art has the power to change thinking and concepts of identity, and thereby change lives.
Wiley did not resort to criticizing or blaming the art world for ignoring people of color as subjects for portraits on museum walls. Instead, he just showed up, with an inimitable style of portraiture that fuses art-historical references and classical visual rhetoric with current vernaculars because he has the expansive vision, imagination, and painting chops to do it. In the process, he has opened a door for others like himself – from the models he celebrates, to the emerging artists of color in his residency programs, to the hordes of new art devotees he attracts.
Two of the first people to recognize that Wiley was gathering a new world of followers are Julie and Bennett Roberts, the co-founders of Roberts Projects. They were one of the first galleries to show Wiley in 2003, and they have shown him longer than any other gallery, with six solo exhibitions and additional publications. It is fitting that their inaugural exhibition in a 10,000 square-foot, beautifully refurbished 1948 warehouse on La Brea Avenue – formerly known as the Max Barish Chrysler-Plymouth showroom – showcases Kehinde Wiley. The show’s opening attracted hundreds who patiently waited in a long line that extended several blocks.
Wiley’s new series of eight monumental oval paintings at Roberts Projects references the title of Ito Jakuchu’s 30-scroll set of extraordinary bird-and-flower paintings, Colorful Realm of Living Beings (c.1757-1766). This supreme masterpiece is one of Japan’s most renowned cultural treasures. Wiley was first introduced to Japanese aesthetics as a child by his mother, who went to Okinawa as a U.S. Marine and later incorporated Japanese influences into her home, which she called her “museum,” filled with collectible objects. Wiley credits his “aesthetic awakening” to the assemblage of sculptures, antiques and plants in his mother’s garden, because her inventiveness was a formative influence on his way of seeing the possibilities of an object, as a state of mind that engenders what he calls a “sense of radical possibility.”
Wiley now turns to Japanese nature paintings of the Edo period (c.1600-1868) to shed an Eastern spiritual perspective on a harmonious relationship to nature, in dramatic contrast to our current era of ecological disasters. These exquisitely refined, metaphysically-charged paintings are based on the changes of the four seasons. Wiley sometimes incorporates non-Western aesthetics with African textile designs in the background and through his model’s fashion statements. Unlike the detailed, decorative backgrounds he is best known for – which are often based on iconic English floral wallpaper motifs by William Morris – these more minimalist paintings incorporate large expanses of empty space that suggest the limitlessness of nature which extends beyond the painting itself.
Wiley has always used the figure-ground relationship to change the way we see everything: from people to places to objects. In his earlier paintings, the floral profusion in the background spread unchecked, creeping over his figures, suggesting their mortality and vulnerability to impending dangers. In this new series, the striking poses of the characters are still enveloped in the historical rhetoric of western portraiture, but the paintings no longer contain direct references to this history. Instead, they are sealed in a “natural embrace,” to quote Julie Roberts. Wiley is also a master of high-contrast lighting technique which he uses to highlight the glowing skin and features of his models, by employing digitally-enhanced photographs to create the chiaroscuro effect of Old Master paintings. In these new works, the radiant black figures pop even more vividly against negative space in what Wiley calls a “divine void.”
These new paintings incorporate birds, frogs, lizards, grasshoppers and snakes which are often seen in Edo-period paintings as co-inhabitants in a world of oneness with nature. In Portrait of Oluseyi Olaose, a large rooster stares admiringly at a graceful black woman dressed in a blue chiffon blouse, skirt and sneakers while a yellow bird behind her eats luscious red berries from a tree that peacefully encloses them all together. In Portrait of Taquane Butler, birds are seen perched on an orange maple tree next to a black male with a head bun holding a large staff, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Russian word that means “toxic beware.” In Portrait of Prince Anthony Hall, butterflies encircle a fabulously dressed protagonist wearing a yellow top and silky balloon pants standing in an assertive heroic pose, holding two large swords to stake his ground filled with jubilant summer flowers. In Portrait of Seydina Omar Gueye, a bare-chested black male in a yellow turban and dress pants and shoes poses with open palms, encircled by flowers in the company of friendly frogs, grasshoppers, moths and a snake. Plants sometimes creep gently over the protagonists, but the blissful balance between humans, animals and plants (both real and fantastical) has a quality of magical realism, and this serves as a reminder of possibilities we could attain – as well as a warning of what could be lost.
Wiley’s work process follows the manner of the Old Master studio tradition, with assistants who paint the detailed backgrounds in his studios in Brooklyn and Beijing. But the flesh of Wiley’s models is sacred to him, so only he himself paints the figures. Afterwards, the canvases are rolled up and he travels with them to his studios. Not surprisingly, Wiley has become a new incarnation of an Old Master, yet he is a superstar with a global presence as an artist-entrepreneur-philanthropist. After a lifetime spent looking at art as an outsider, growing up on the periphery as a poor black kid from South Central Los Angeles, Wiley saw what insiders could not see: that art has the power to break down boundaries instead of cementing boundaries between who is visible and who is invisible – and therein lies his gift. WM
Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.view all articles from this author