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A New Republic

Kehinde Wiley

Perhaps best known for his naturalistic portraits of contemporary African-American subjects posed in the fashion of classical compositions, New York-based painter Kehinde Wiley has achieved global success by producing works that continually challenge modern perceptions.  Born in Los Angeles, CA, Wiley developed an early interest in portraiture and frescos, particularly the work of Venetian painters such as Titian and Tiepolo.  After earning his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and his MFA from the Yale University School of Art, Wiley eventually developed a style influenced by a broad range of sources including French Rococo painting, Islamic architecture, African textile design, contemporary fashion, and hip-hop culture.  Taking inspiration from denizens encountered anywhere from Harlem’s 125th Street to the South Central neighborhood where he was born, he has captured the essence of a variety of subjects, blurring the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation.  His signature portraits of everyday men and women riff on paintings by the Old Masters, replacing European aristocrats with African-American subjects and drawing attention to the absence of diversity in historical and cultural narratives.  In this manner, Wiley’s paintings not only fuse history and style through the use of a unique and modern technique, but also contribute a strong voice to the dialogue concerning the significance of equality and inclusivity.

With its complex blend of appropriation, visual splendor, and, oftentimes, wry humor, Wiley's works have garnered him a worldwide following.  Exhibiting work at distinguished institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, he has achieved a level of critical and popular success rare for an artist so young.  He has challenged and complicated the tradition of European and American portraiture, bringing issues of race, power, and the politics of representation to the fore in the cultural conversation.  Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is organized by the Brooklyn Museum and offers an overview of the artist’s prolific 14-year career. Making its final stop on a nationwide tour, this collection will be on display at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art from June 17 through September 10.  So, be sure to plan your trip soon to view these unique and influential works.  To supplement your exploration of Kehinde Wiley’s catalogue, the Metropolitan Library has a number of books on offer.  Below are a few titles available today at a branch near you.



Kehinde Wiley Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley’s cleverly constructed portraits have provided rich commentary on the nature of race and power in society today. His work began primarily from photographs taken of young men on the street in Harlem that he remixed with a fusion of historic painting styles, including elements of French Rococo. From his earliest shows in 2001, Wiley’s paintings have drawn massive attention, proving both visually and conceptually appealing while creating a cross cultural bridge between communities. In the last decade, he has become one of the most important contemporary artists, with work as relevant and resonant to the hip-hop generation as it is to high-end collectors and major museums. Chronicling his earliest paintings and photographs as well as his forays into sculpture portraits in bronze, Kehinde Wiley, is the only comprehensive monograph on Wiley’s work, offering an in-depth examination of his artistry and his message.

Kerry James Marshall Kerry James Marshall

Kehinde Wiley’s art questions traditional societal constructs, offering a vision of a reconsidered past. By presenting depictions of power, wealth, and strength in a historical context with African-American men and women at the fore, he enables viewers to reflect upon their opinions and preconceived perceptions. One major influence on Wiley’s style is Chicago-based artist, Kerry James Marshall. Studying art history in Los Angeles during 1970’s, Marshall was struck by the absence of black artists in the traditional “canon.” Continuing through to the ’80s, he observed as art history survey textbooks continued to lack sufficient multi-cultural subject matter. Marshall has spent his career considering these omissions and doing his best to rectify the absence of diversity in the history of art and museum collections. His work explores contemporary African-American experiences through lyrical, Matissian images. Kerry James Marshall presents an illustrated monograph on the work of one of America’s most important, painters, photographers, print makers, and installation artists.

The Great Masters: Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian Giorgio Vasari

Dressed in street clothes, Kehinde Wiley’s models are often asked to assume poses hearkening back to the works of Renaissance artists such as Tiziano Vecellio, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and more. In fact, this influence of the Old Masters can be seen throughout his works and is the vehicle by which Wiley conveys his message. Just as Wiley has burst upon the world with his prodigious visions, so too did these geniuses of yesteryear. But, who were these artists who have helped to inspire Kehinde Wiley’s works? The Great Masters, offers six biographical accounts covering the lives of Giotto, Botticelli, da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian, interwoven with vivid color reproductions of little-known and familiar works by each artist, pictures by their contemporaries, color gatefolds and marginal annotations.

Rococo Victoria Charles

In his painting Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005), Kehinde Wiley imitates the well-known portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte by Jacques-Louis David but substitutes the figure of Napoleon with an anonymous African American model, setting him against a Rococo style background. This type of creativity is consistently found in Wiley’s portfolio. And, the Rococo style is often utilized in his works. Deriving from the French word rocaille, in reference to the curved forms of shellfish, and the Italian barocco, the French created the term Rococo. Appearing at the beginning of the 18th century, the movement rapidly spread to the whole of Europe. Extravagant and light, Rococo responded perfectly to the offhandedness of the aristocracy of the time. Rococo, by Victoria Charles, traces the trajectory of this movement from its rise through the works of Tiepolo, Boucher and Reynolds to its decline in the second half of the 18th century.

Harlem Renaissance Nathan Irvin Huggins

From antiquity to present-day, there has existed an inextricable link between art and the economic, historical, and cultural forces in society at large. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, African American artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Kerry James Marshall have conducted critical experiments, engaging their efforts with social movements that have helped to redefine national culture. In the early 1900’s, the Harlem Renaissance saw the neighborhood experience a creative explosion in the areas of history, literature, music, psychology, and art. Illuminated by the thoughts and writings of such key figures as Alain Locke,W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes as well the visual arts of Aaron Douglas, Lois Mailou Jones and Jacob Lawrence, not only did this period shed light on the character and culture of one of New York’s most iconic neighborhoods, but it also revealed the sociological climate across the nation. Harlem Renaissance offers a lens through which readers might gain better understanding of one of the most important episodes in American history.

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Photo credit: PBS.org

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