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The Hat reflects on Kehinde Wiley's "Portrait of Andries Stilte." (Photo by: Tina Eshleman)
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Kehinde Wiley's "Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson)," 2010 (Photo by: Tina Eshleman)
The traveling exhibit curated by the Brooklyn Museum of Art of work by contemporary art star Kehinde Wiley “A New Republic,” runs June 11 to Sept. 5 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Richmond is one of seven stops, and the only one south of New York City and east of Texas where you’ll be able to see these 50 pieces: enormous paintings, small icon-like portraits, sculpture and stained glass.
The artist’s talk on Friday evening is sold out, as is the simulcast program for those not able to get into the Leslie Cheek Theater. Admission is free on Saturday (June 11) thanks to the Richmond Links chapter's sponsorship of African-American Family Day at the museum.
Los Angeles-raised Wiley, not yet 40, carved a niche for himself after graduating from Yale University and becoming the artist-in-residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem by creating tremendous portraits of young African-American men, often posed and influenced by works of great Western art.
He said in a 2014 interview, linked below, “Thinking about approaching complete strangers in the streets of New York is a real dodgy proposition to begin with.” Most said no. Thus, the completed works became a form of validation for the few people who said yes, “which is a weird demographic study of its own." Heather Russell, who a few years ago ran Russell/Projects gallery in Plant Zero and is now with Artnet, conducts the interview.
He needed to explain to his curious subjects why he spent so much time alone in a room “using hairy sticks and colored pastes and coaxing images into form.” He engaged his sitters in conversations about their personal history and art history, and asked if they could look as though they were in a great painting, what kind would it be? He says, “It became a relay between my taste and art history.”
He chose to represent today’s African-Americans amid the tropes of the Western art canon.
Wiley drew collectors, became renowned and now travels the globe, from Beijing to Israel, from Jamaica to Cameroon and Gabon. His newest body of work is “The World Stage,” and like a film producer, he’s aided by a group of assistants, as were those revered Venetian and Florentine Renaissance artists. Which is why some of those works get credit as “From the studio” or “The workshop of" and attribution can get blurred.
His gigantic “Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II” (shown above) portrays Michael Jackson in ceremonial armor astride a prancing mount. He grips a marshal’s baton and looks from the corner of his eye as though somewhat anxious of falling off the steed.
During this morning’s media preview, the image of Jackson attracted attention, and in its way, reverberated through his status as a now gone “King of Pop” into the facsimile of a Spanish Hapsburg royal.
There are numerous other portraits of people who aren’t famous, but are treated as though they are the glittering nobles or revered holy figures from those centuries-old paintings of the art history tomes. Often behind the figures are backgrounds of elaborate designs like Flemish tapestries. But the faces can seem without emotion and possess a certain photographic and almost clinical sense. An exception is “The White Slave,” which includes in its lower right quadrant a still life of glass holding liguid and half-eaten food. Almost out of the frame, women in part regard the center subject, but also the viewer.
In 2015, the Brooklyn Museum of Art curated “A New Republic.” The New York Times review by Roberta Smith right at top said that you can love or hate Wiley’s “bright, brash, history-laden, kitsch-tinged portraits of confident, even imperious young black men and women. But it is hard to ignore them, especially right now, with scores of them bristling forth from … the artist’s mind-teasing, eye-catching” Brooklyn survey. (You can read it all here.)
In the Brooklyn Museum of Art video below, Wiley speaks of showing contemporary African Americans amid the “trappings of empire and power.”
This is Richmond, Virginia, a city of a complicated inner life and personal history, underneath a famous thin skin. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was built on the old campus where destitute Confederate veterans lived out their days, and on occasion Confederate battle flag-wavers still stand vigil to protest that the banner isn’t flying over the former soldiers' chapel and elsewhere.
The final room of the exhibit is devoted to women. And here, they wear designer gowns resembling either royalty or deities. A couple lies in the grass, gossiping and looking out as though you’ve come along and interrupted their secret sharing. Wiley also takes up the subject of African-American women and their hair in a big triple-bust titled “Bound,” and resembles the adornment of ancient Asian temples.
If vistors’ curiosity is piqued by the historical references within Wiley’s work, they can spend time at the Art Lounge, decompressing and reflecting and examining references back and forth between Wiley’s work and art to be found throughout the museum.
Wiley’s “A New Republic” offers what may be a startling view of the present world through the lens of the old, and you won’t leave the exhibition without wanting to talk about it.