Gargantuan is the only way to describe Kehinde Wiley’s talent as well as his paintings, now on view at the Brooklyn Museum.
Docent Laurie Moody radiated an impish glee since she knew we were about to fall in love with the 38-year-old African-American artist from Los Angeles, California. Wiley’s mother recognized his raw talent early and put him in art school by age eight. He earned his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and his MFA from Yale University, School of Art in 2001. This year, John Kerry presented him with the US State Department Medal of Arts.
His impressive background couldn’t prepare us for what we were about to see. Wiley has the audacity to “take off” on certain portraits painted by the Old Masters, but he replaces the European aristocratic subjects with twenty to thirty-ish mostly black men wearing sneakers, hoodies and baseball caps from hip hop culture. Their poses have a powerful, aristocratic attitude – almost as if to say, “Why aren’t these beautiful black people found in art history? It’s about time!”
And talk about versatile. Wiley creates everything from stained glass windows to bronze sculptures to massive oil paintings, many of which are 9 x 9 feet or more. These portraits are grand, lush, and saturated with bold colors set against decorative backgrounds of flowers or vines. Many have a hefty dose of wit, magic and feistiness.
A black man in a dapper business suit has an Afro that’s grown so wild, it takes over the whole painting; a street kid in a hoodie takes the place of a saint in a religious stained glass piece; and a gallant Michael Jackson sits atop a horse. Jackson commissioned this painting but died before he ever saw it.
Wiley chooses his subjects through “street casting.” He asks ordinary people on the street to be in his paintings. They choose the Old Master portrait they want to pose for.
It is Wiley’s belief that “everyone is fascinated by looking at another human being.” Wiley’s human beings are so captivating, it is almost impossible for anyone to look away.
The exhibit closes on May 24th. To learn more, call 718-638-5000 or go to www.brooklynmuseum.org