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The New-York based portrait painter, who is known for his highly naturalistic paintings of people with black and brown skin in heroic poses. Kehinde Wiley’s paintings often blur the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation. Rendered in a realistic mode–while making references to specific Old Master paintings–Wiley creates a fusion of period styles, ranging from French Rococo, Islamic architecture and West African textile design to urban hip hop and the “Sea Foam Green” of a Martha Stewart Interiors color swatch. Wiley’s slightly larger than life size figures are depicted in a heroic manner, as their poses connote power and spiritual awakening. Wiley’s portrayal of masculinity is filtered through these poses of power and spirituality.
Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) is based on Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800) by Jacques-Louis David, often regarded as a “masterpiece”, now restaged by Wiley with an African rider wearing modern army fatigues and a bandanna. Wiley “investigates the perception of blackness and creates a contemporary hybrid Olympus in which tradition is invested with a new street credibility”
His portraits are based on photographs of young men who Wiley sees on the street. He painted men from Harlem’s 125th Street, then South Central neighborhood where he was born. Dressed in street clothes, his models were asked to assume poses from the paintings of Renaissance masters, such as Tiziano Vecellio and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
The artist describes his approach as “interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit.” Wiley’s figurative paintings “quote historical sources and position young black men within that field of power.” In this manner, Wiley’s paintings fuse history and style in a unique and contemporary manner.
Kehinde Wiley has been traveling the globe for the past few years, handpicking locals from various stops as muses for his lush, classical photographs and paintings. The series, called The World Stage, has visited Jamaica, Israel, France, India, Brazil, Lagos, Dakar, China, and Sri Lanka.
Wiley’s latest works celebrate the people of Haiti, where he held “beauty pageants” in Jacmel, Port-au-Prince, and Jalousie, in which winners were selected at random rather than on more standard pageant merits. A show of 12 of these portraits of Wiley’s winners, as well as a documentary about the process, will be exhibited at the Roberts & Tilton gallery in Los Angeles from September 13th through October 25th.
Kihende Wiley found beauty in Haiti, bringing it to the forefront by creating his own beauty
pageants, in the long tradition of pageant culture native to the region. In previous World Stage
iterations, Wiley conducted his castings on the streets. With The World Stage: Haiti, he employed a different approach specific to the culture: open calls on the radio, posters around the streets of Jacmel, Jalouise and Port-au-Prince, culminating in beauty pageants. Across the Caribbean, pageants serve as mass entertainment events, allowing locals to do more than exhibit poise, talent and physical beauty; pageants are a manifestation of collective cultural values. Wiley’s pageant winners were chosen randomly rather than through a judging process. By showing the pageant contestants paintings of European masters on which the new works would be based, Wiley deepened the connection between both place and era.