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The Amazing Kehinde Wiley
Nina Martin | Photo: Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum | February 21, 2013
As simple portraits, Kehinde Wiley’s paintings of young, mostly black men from around the world are stunning. But there’s nothing simple about the New York–based artist’s work.
“The World Stage: Israel" Wiley’s vibrant new show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, explodes with ideas about race, class, sexuality, art history, colonial power, the African diaspora, and the Americanization of global culture. No wonder the 35-year-old Wiley has become an art-world phenom.
Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Wiley earned his bachelor’s degree at the San Francisco Art Institute and now produces many of his paintings at a workshop in China. Amazingly, the CJM show is his first Bay Area exhibition. The monumental portraits feature young Israeli men—mainly Ethiopian Jews and Arabs—against ornate backdrops that reference Jewish ceremonial art. The men are dressed in t-shirts, but they hold themselves with the ruling-class machismo—chins up, cheekbones out, arms gesticulating at God-knows-what—of the 17th and 18th century dukes and earls who gaze down from the walls of Downton Abbey.
Wiley has been playing with this kind of juxtaposition for years, depicting sports and hip-hop icons in the manner of Titian or Ingres, on galloping horses or laid out like the dead Christ. The “World Stage” series—which has also taken Wiley to India, Brazil, China, and France—is more subtle. The subjects aren’t international superstars, but ordinary young men dislocated from the cultures they live in. They jump off the canvas, demanding that you see them for who they really are.
To that end, don’t miss the excellent video about the Israel series at the start of the show. There’s also a selection of books about Wiley’s other work tucked into a corner of the gallery for quiet perusing.