Kehinde Wiley's lecture transported me back to my art history classes 30 years ago; the terms, the thought processes, the way of speaking were all familiar to me from that time. The subject matter: his sometimes astounding work, which juxtaposes (with 'circa,' one of my all time favorite art history words!) Baroque or medieval backgrounds with modern-day Black men was far from familiar art history class fodder, however. Kehinde discussed his personal history, what lead him to art (his mother wanted to keep him out of trouble growing up in LA), and how classic poses and backgrounds inspired his current style. I found this most intriguing; he looked at the classic Jacques-Louis David painting of Napoleon, and created Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, 2005 .
Wiley's works are larger-than-life size.
St. John the Baptist in the Nasher Museum is imposing (8' x 6'); forcing viewers to confront their own ideas about young Black manhood as they gaze upon the oversized clothing, basketball shoes, and gold scepter.
Kehinde says his work “quotes historical sources and positions young black men within that field of power.” His work fuses history and style in a unique and contemporary way.
I was also intrigued to learn he began by choosing his models off the streets of Harlem, and would allow them to choose the background for their portraits from art books in his studio. From that beginning, he's gone to photographing his models, using a wider variety of culturally influenced backgrounds (Islamic tiles, French wallpapers), and working with computers and a team of artists to complete the paintings. All of the portrait work is by his own hand; everything else is done by the team.
Kehinde showed many examples of his work, then answered questions from the audience. My question was the final one (though I didn't get to ask it; someone else did!): would he do a series of women? He said yes.
I can't wait to see what he does with that, given the history of portraiture of women: queens, rich women posing with children and dogs, religious imagery, and nudes...hmmm, 'wonder what will inspire Kehinde--I guess we'll just have to wait and see.