Last week, a rare thing happened. The Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth turned away hundreds of people eager to hear an artist speak about his work. The 600-seat auditorium was filled to capacity – and the artist’s show hadn’t even opened yet. As KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, painter Kehinde Wiley has become an art star.
The 38-year-old has become an art star because he takes ordinary African-Americans – people he picks out on the streets in Harlem and Brooklyn and in his travels around the world – and he paints their portraits. His paintings make them into glowing figures out of art history: Byzantine saints, heroes on horseback, fashion-plate nobility.
We’re at the Modern’s big retrospective of Wiley’s art, “A New Republic,” and we’re standing in front of a wall-size painting, basically nine feet by nine feet. It’s perhaps the artist’s signature work, “Napoleon Leading His Army Across the Alps.” It’s based on the famous 1801 portrait byJacques-Louis David. David depicts Napoleon as a man of destiny. He’s on a rearing horse on top of the world, riding the whirlwind of history.
Except, here, it’s not Napoleon.
“He’s a black man in Timberland boots with camouflage jeans,” says Wiley. “You’re seeing someone who’s impossibly powerful in this painting, who’s taming this irrational, wild beast. But his eyes, if you look at him very closely, are very calm and fixed.”
The painting usually hangs in the Brooklyn Museum, where Wiley had his first solo museum show in 2004 and where this retrospective began this February. Eugenie Tsai is curator of contemporary art there.
“I walk down every day and I see people standing in front of it,” she says, “people of all sorts. You know, it’s just a real conversation opener. So whatever you think of the work, when a work like that mesmerizes so many people, you know that it’s exerting a certain power.”
Wiley grew up in LA. During free weekend art classes his mother made him attend, he’d visit the Huntington Library in San Marino with its galleries of 18th-century portraits. He fell in love with painting, and would go on to earn an MFA at Yale. But he was left with a question: Why didn’t those images in the Huntington include anyone like him — or anyone he knew? Why were there no blacks at all?
“In looking at some of the society portraits,” Wiley says, “what you’re seeing is people who by virtue of habit and example have been given the tool book on how to be elegant in a picture. But many people don’t realize that so much of the wealth surrounding these noble personages in those paintings has to do with slavery and empire and colonialization.”
In a still-controversial essay, “Jane Austen and Empire,” the late critic Edward Said elaborated on references to slave plantations in Mansfield Park to argue that, essentially, Austen’s 18th-century world of enlightened ideas, country homes and delicate manners could only exist — could only be fully understood — within the British Empire, where the brutalized people of color supporting this vast and lucrative system were far away.
Wiley set out to offset that distance, to fill that absence – to celebrate the people excluded from Western art history, to push them forward as elegant and noble. He’s done it using religious icons, bronze busts, even stained-glass windows. But mostly with his flamboyant paintings.
One shouldn’t overlook that Wiley’s title “A New Republic” — and the selection of pieces on display — tend to give an egalitarian gloss to a body of work that also includes pop-celebrity worship. The only megastar portrayed in this show is Michael Jackson — in a strangely stiff painting, “Equestrian Portrait of Philip II.” But courtesy of a VH1 commission, Wiley lived up to his Renaissance predecessors in portraying our Medicis and Borgias of today: rappers such as Ice-T, Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane (none are included here).
But Wiley doesn’t simply take historic settings and insert contemporary African-Americans sporting hip-hop fashions and designer gowns. In many cases, he also strips out the traditional landscape. He replaces it with ornate backdrops like baroque floral wallpaper or the intricate designs on Hermes scarves. Whereas a conventional society portrait might show a duke on his estate or in his library with a globe — proclaiming, in effect, I tamed all this, I own all this — Wiley’s subjects are swarmed with lacework spirals and pretty peacock plumage, as if to underscore the artificial nature of what we’re seeing. Wiley toys with history and fashion, often with the smooth polish and eye-dazzle of his technique but sometimes with an affecting sense of beauty and loss.
“A lot of these colors are what might be considered vulgar at one point or another in American history,” he says. “And the decorative field after a while starts to demand as much space in the painting as the portrait itself. There’s this fight that goes on.”
As a result, Wiley’s artworks deliberately border on kitsch. They’re bright and brash and revisionary – like an Old Master done up as Pop Art. But there’s score-settling here, too: They remind us David’s painting of Napoleon, like its imperial subject, was more than a little pretentious, too — Napoleon as Romantic Titan. And those 18th-century society portraits that made the English nobility look impossibly refined? Many were just flashing their era’s own kind of bling. “Look at my swanky garden. Do you like my silk brocades?”
“Certainly there’s always a tongue-in-cheek aspect in much of Kehinde’s work,” says Tsai. “But then I think it’s a kind of an ah-ha! moment. Like, ‘Oh, y’know, these are my biases.'”
History and power lend respectability to race and class prejudices. Seeing grand, formal-looking piece after piece displaying black bodies in period style after period style, it’s plain Wiley’s ambition is to — almost single-handedly — rectify the balance in Western culture, to assert the presence of African-Americans at the center of old-school traditions, even if they’re ramped-up versions of them. European paintings, Kehinde says, are carefully wrought signs, indicating who has authority, what is permitted as truly masculine or truly feminine. The homoerotic nature of much of Christian art, for instance — all those suffering martyrs and dying Christs with bare torsos — is reclaimed for black men by Wiley.
“When looking at those original portraits,” Wiley notes, “you almost start to see the stage set for the opera, the opera that becomes our lives.”
This is art and power as performance and stagecraft. In fact, in replicating equestrian portraits of the past, Wiley discovered one particular illusion. He rented a horse for a painting and found horses are big, taking up far more space than any man. They dominate any image, from almost any angle.
That’s when Wiley noticed that in some of those grand Old Master icons we know so well? The painter actually shrunk the horse – to make the emperor look bigger.