Kehinde Wiley is a New York based painter from Los Angeles who has situated himself firmly within art history’s tradition of portrait painting. Wiley, as the contemporary descendent of a long line of portraitists including Reynolds, Gainsborough, Titian, Ingres, and others, appropriates the signs and visual rhetoric of the heroic, powerful, opulent, majestic, and sublime in his representations of young, urban, black men.
The subjects and stylistic references for his paintings are juxtaposed inversions of each other, forcing ambiguity and provocative perplexity to pervade his imagery. By applying the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, history, wealth, power, and prestige to subject matter drawn from the urban fabric in which he is embedded, Wiley presents his young men as both heroic and pathetic, aestheticized and reified, autonomous and manipulated. Ultimately, Wiley’s practice disturbs and interrupts tropes of portrait painting to locate, in his words, “class struggle at the level of sign”.
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.
His portraits are based on photographs of young men who Wiley sees on the street, begun last year with men mostly from Harlem’s 125th Street, the series now includes models from the South Central neighborhood where he was born. Dressed in street clothes, they are asked to assume poses from the paintings of Renaissance masters, such as Titian and Tiepolo. Wiley also embraces French rococo ornamentation; his references to this style compliment his embrace of hip–hop culture. Similarly, the poses of his figures appear to derive as much from contemporary hip–hop culture as from Renaissance paintings.
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.