Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley is back in his hometown of Los Angeles, and the city is welcoming him with open arms. As an artist whose name evokes recognition, and even conversation, beyond the periphery of the contemporary art world, the Brooklyn based artist draws a crowd of eager devotees (the author not excluded) to any venue at which his work is being exhibited or discussed. With a recent lecture at the Getty Museum, and a new exhibition on view at Roberts & Tilton, Wiley is introducing the public to Brazil, the latest series within his larger body of work, The World Stage. Continue reading below for a full review of Brazil by DailyServing’s Allison Gibson.

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Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA


With The World Stage, Wiley moves away from using models sourced from the streets of Brooklyn and Los Angeles to pose for his majestic paintings, which emulate the portraiture of Western European noblemen and kings. Instead, he has embarked on a select world tour in this body of work, wherein he chooses models native to the country that he is working in, expanding his ideas beyond the basis of traditional European portraiture to create a more global dialog. He now refers to the artistic and historical traditions specific to those cultures which continue to be marginalized or ignored by the art world. Bringing these developing countries into the forefront of the discussion, Wiley begins a dialog about identity and power that isn’t dominated for once by the ideas of the West.

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Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA

The previous installments of the World Stage were China and Africa, Lagos-Dakar. For the Brazil series, Wiley continued his pattern of working in which he sought out a very specific type of model to be photographed. He was very clear that he was looking for young men from their teens to early thirties, who come from poor neighborhoods and who carry certain physical traits similar to the art works he is attempting to emulate. Wiley even mentioned in his lecture at the Getty that when word began to leak about what type of models he was looking for on the streets of Rio, hoards of young men showed up doing their best impressions of what they heard he was interested in.

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Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA

The larger than life canvases in ornate wooden frames on display at Roberts & Tilton introduce confident, yet accessible young men posed amidst fluorescent backdrops of explosive pattern. The young men from the “favelas” of the so-called Marvelous City, in their contemporary Brazilian style, appear at once completely unrelated to their staged circumstances — the old-world postures, the props that they hold, and the floral backdrops that intertwine with their bodies — and at the same time seem to embrace the roles that their director has asked them to undertake.

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Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA

In Rio de Janeiro, Wiley’s inspirations did not rest in old master paintings hanging on the walls of powerful institutions, but allowed the work to be impacted by the iconic nationalistic sculptures found around the city, which he might argue are the cultural equivalent to the David or Velasquez paintings referenced in his earlier work. The earnest looks in the painted mens’ eyes seem to be pleading with us to accept them and the orchestrated scenes into which they are set. The sheer size of the paintings and the nearly unmatched skill in rendering human elements, down to the soft skin and muscular arms, command the viewer to linger in front of the colossal works much longer than the pieces might merit if executed in a smaller scale. The backgrounds, which are inspired by ethnic tapestries discovered by the artist, hypnotize the viewer as their eyes attempt to make sense of it all.

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Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA

In discussing his oeuvre, Wiley admits to having a great affection for, interest in, and knowledge of the scope of Western painting from which he draws inspiration for his modern day recreations. So it has become clear to the viewer over the past few years that his attitude isn’t necessarily one of criticism of these works which have undoubtedly dominated the canon of art history for centuries. Rather, by bringing the element of the young, modern black man into the picture, he is creating a conversation about power, which is much more interesting and effective than satire in this dialog. However, since his completion of the MFA at Yale and his residency at the Studio Museum Harlem more than half a decade ago, Wiley has been, essentially, exhibiting the same work — albeit cleverly and progressively investigating the broader themes of art history, power, war or the fallen with each new series. While most of his audience remains basically enraptured by the work — because of its size, because of its photo realist qualities, because of its social implications, because of the way it relates to modernity overtly or through undertones, or because of its bright colors and patterns — one wonders if it is still challenging us in the way it had when the first series was shown.

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Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA

The World Stage is moving beyond the comfort zone of the Western context of power, and into a world still largely unexplored by American artists, and through this, Wiley has added another dimension to the discourse. The conversation now reaches beyond the obvious juxtapositions of social prestige and into ideas about the American fetishization of the exotic and especially the less-than, as he discussed at his lecture at the Getty. It’s one thing to paint images of “the other”, and it’s another to paint scenes that refer to art history, but when the two are combined, the viewer is forced to contemplate each piece on several levels. It begins to be more difficult to deduce from each painting the same one-liner about contemporary culture versus historical ideals of power and pomp. Introducing the Brazilian men and the many contexts from which they come, into the pieces, American viewers now find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of being faced with something we may not fully understand, and that means the work is asking us to spend more time with it, thinking, talking, and even struggling with our own preconceived notions.

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Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA

The World Stage: Brazil is on view at Roberts & Tilton through May 30, 2009 and is accompanied by a 64-page hardcover book of the exhibition.

Kehinde Wiley is based in Brooklyn, New York. He received his MFA from the Yale University School of Art and his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. His work is in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, The Columbus Museum of Art, The Denver Art Museum, The UCLA Hammer Museum and The Studio Museum in Harlem, among others. He has shown in solo exhibitions internationally, including at sorrywereclosed, Brussels, Belgium; John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Milwaukee; Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago and Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles. His work has been discussed in Art in America, Newsweek, Artforum, ARTslant, The New Yorker, Art Papers, on NPR and many others.

KehindeWiley_TheWorldStageBrazil_Installation.jpg
Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA
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