Monday, January 9, 2012

Kehinde Wiley: Mastering the Classics

During the holidays I had the opportunity to visit Savannah for the first time. I'd heard it was a beautiful city, and it did not disappoint. Savannah is famed for its history, its food, its riverfront, its architecture and its graveyards. It is also home to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

Though the aim of our three night stay in Savannah was to visit my son, who is a manager in one of the city's many nice restaurants, I also very much desired to take in the SCAD Museum of Art. It was worth the visit.

Among the exhibits on display at this time is the work of a New York-based portrait painter named Kehinde Wiley. His paintings are very large, and in the style of the classic masters, except they are different.

A museum staff member said that Wiley takes people off the street (for example, Harlem) and has them choose a classic pose, but he paints them in their contemporary garb. My guess is that he is cleverly introducing these ordinary people to extraordinary slices of culture and art history. The piece here on the left is titled, The Three Graces.

This weekend I went online to find out more about Kehinde Wiley. On his website I found the following Artist Statement.

Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of African American men collate modern culture with the influence of Old Masters. Incorporating a range of vernaculars culled from art historical references, Wiley’s work melds a fluid concept of modern culture, ranging from French Rococo to today’s urban landscape. By collapsing history and style into a unique contemporary vision, Wiley interrogates the notion of master painter, “making it at once critical and complicit.” Vividly colorful and often adorned with ornate gilded frames, Wiley’s large-scale figurative paintings, which are illuminated with a barrage of baroque or rococo decorative patterns, posit young black men, fashioned in urban attire, within the field of power reminiscent of Renaissance artists such as Tiepolo and Titian.

What impressed me was not only the conceptual fusion of art history and Black American experience, the paintings themselves were masterfully produced. Wiley's brushwork demonstrates nothing short of wizardry.

I've forgotten how long the Wiley exhibit will be up but for now through the end of January you can see the paintings photographed here at the SCAD Museum of Art. To see additional works by Wiley, visit his page at the National Portrait Gallery website.

For what it's worth, this very young artist in his mid-thirties has a lot of years ahead of him. He'll be someone to keep an eye on in the 21st century.

Click images to enlarge.

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