Vision Revisited by Alana Jones

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“The whole conversation of my work has to do with power and who has it,” explains New York based visual artist Kehinde Wiley. Incredibly prolific, versed in the history of figurative painting, and, himself, the most recent inheritor of the portraiture tradition, Wiley, in collection after collection “…engages the signs and visual rhetoric of the heroic, powerful, majestic, and sublime in his representation of urban, black and brown men found throughout the world,”(from http://www.kehindewiley.com). With a Bachelors Degree in Fine Art from the San Francisco Art Institute, an MFA from Yale University, works on display internationally and in permanent collections across the U.S., a line of sport apparel by Puma, and a growing fan-base that transgresses the boundaries of street/pop culture and high art, Wiley is perhaps the most relevant artist of the moment, tackling the sociopolitical in global contexts, re imagining the golden age of western imperialism in the ascetics of the new-millennium African diaspora.

Renowned in recent years for his rendering of skin, his larger-than-life figures, and his irreverent commentary on culture and identity, Wiley offers black and brown men unprecedented subjectivity to enter identity discourse as complex and multi-layered individuals with the social value afforded those that posed originally for Diego Velazquez and other classical portraitists referenced in much of Wiley’s work.

The collapsing of historical periods and locales births something uniquely modern at the same time interrogating the paradoxically “critical and complicit” role of the artists. Homoeroticism, a part of the western tradition of portrait, becomes a springboard for unpacking contemporary notions of black and brown masculinity and considering performance of “machismo” across the African-diaspora. The substitution of black for white faces, pop ascetics and symbology for high art and culture, and the props and poses of the imperial wealthy and noble minority redressed in track suits, athletic jerseys, African prints, and brown bodies generate new perspectives in discourses on race and place, the well-worn terms of which threaten to become cliché in our so-called post-racial, global society.

While Wiley has been criticized for owing a large debt to other artists dealing with identity and celebrity in modern portraiture including Barkley Hendricks, Andy Warhol, John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres (NY Times online Aug. 27, 2009, Roberta Smith), there is growing consensus among art critics that in Wiley’s recent works (most notably the World Stage collections, rendering figures from the streets of Sao Paola to Dakar), the artist’s technical prowess and ability to express his ideas on canvas has finally met his critical voice to generate increasingly nuanced and meaningful works that grab the spirit and challenge the intellect, simultaneously.

In 2010, Wiley began designs for Puma’s “Africa Lifestyle” line of sneakers and sports apparel in honor of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa; born of his partnership with the brand that commissioned paintings of African footballers Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon, John Mensah of Ghana, and Emmanuel Eboue of Ivory Coast. The “Africa” collection taps into Wiley’s use of abstraction and prints, along with his growing interest in art and fabrics from Dakar and Lagos to further unsettle the relationship between high art and pop culture on the bodies of the living, breathing youth that will wear the clothing and, like Wiley himself, will help generate the discourses that produce and revise culture and define and reify ideas about power and identity.

The young brothers we encounter everyday, rendered in the style of gods and kings, hold an unheralded humanity and dignity in their limbs and tattooed on their bodies and clothing as they hang on gallery walls, within their gilded frames. Breathtaking, one must get to know this artist’s work in person and hear the call of its stature and photo-realism then let it become a demand to rethink one’s notions of society and our place within the hierarchy of value and power.

Visit  www.kehindewiley.com to check out more of the artists work and link to current and upcoming exhibitions.

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