Kehinde Wiley’s epic portraits, mostly of young African-American men in heroic poses borrowed from Old Masters, shock, amuse and dazzle.
The 39-year-old artistic phenom has a show opening Friday at the Toledo Museum of Art, “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic.” It will be up through May 14.
The artist will speak at the museum Feb. 9.
On seeing Wiley’s huge canvases, you can’t help but be struck by their political overtones. Casting a young, street-hip black man as “Napoleon Crossing the Alps,” rearing stallion and all, challenges a whole host of assumptions.
Additionally, however, you’re also likely to be struck by how lush these oil paintings are, and what a visual treat they offer.
“Luminous” is the description Halona Norton-Westbrook, Toledo museum director of collections, likes.
“One great thing about ‘A New Republic,’ ” she said, “is that in the best-possible sense it overwhelms you with its scale.”
And its audacity.
Wiley’s subjects and the way he poses them, to say nothing of the latent homoeroticism throughout his work, were all “personally risky” when he started out, the artist acknowledged.
So, too, was picking his subjects, which he calls “street casting.” Most were complete strangers Wiley approached on the street.
“We’re dealing with the bodies of young black men,” he said, reached at his Brooklyn, New York, studio, “and those bodies have historically been trapped in a media and cultural narrative that defines them in terms of hypersexuality, a propensity for sports, and antisocial behavior.”
So you can see why “The Arms of Nicolas Ruterius, Bishop of Arras,” painted to resemble the 16th century, stained-glass window of the same name, both surprises and delights.
The original, by an unknown Flemish artist, featured an actual coat of arms framed in an arched window. Wiley keeps the church window but puckishly substitutes an athletic, handsome man with, yes, impressively muscular arms in place of the bishop’s shield.
It’s that expectation-reality rub that pleases Wiley.
“My interest is the slippage between masculine and feminine,” he said, “the macho performance that’s required of men — even guys who were sensitive as buttons when I knew them. But in public, they put on this masculine drag. For me,” Wiley added, “it’s always been about performance.”
Wiley’s intricate backgrounds often supply that element of slippage. The guy out front might be the very picture of masculinity, but he’s framed by a wallpaper background that’s ornate and very feminine.
“I do a lot of scouring of old wallpaper manuals,” Wiley admitted, adding, “I actually went to the William Morris estate,” the 19th century British designer whose Arts-and-Crafts textiles and lavish designs revolutionized home decor.
Norton-Westbrook noted that despite all the press Wiley’s gotten, and there’s been a ton, “One of the things that isn’t celebrated is just how extremely well-made and beautiful these works are. There’s this great melding of the art-historical traditions he’s referencing, but also this feeling of being very now and relevant.
“And the comment he’s making perhaps has never had more power than at this particular moment.”
One wonders, however, whether the artist will someday find portraiture too confining and want to branch into something completely different. Wiley doesn’t think so.
“Oh no,” he said. “That’s a universe. Obviously I’m just getting started in my 30s, out here mining this terrible, beautiful history we all have. But I have this absolute love affair with portraiture.”
A New Republic’
Discussion: 6 p.m. Thursday
Kehinde Wiley talks about his work.
Exhibit: Feb. 10 - May 14
Toledo Museum of Art