Anthony van Dyck’s Seventeenth Century Portrait of Charles I at the Hunt now hangs reverentially in the Louvre, so it’s easy to overlook the artist’s daring decision to paint an equestrian portrait of the monarch dismounted and dressed in civilian clothing as he makes almost mischievous eye contact with the viewer; to its original audience, this was emphatically contemporary art. Multimedia artist Kehinde Wiley helps us look at these Old Masters in a new light. His subjects strike poses straight from Old Master paintings, but wear camouflage and Timberland boots. Furthermore, he playfully flips the switch on art, giving us a color-inverted pantheon of Who’s Who in art history.
Organized by the Brooklyn Museum, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic now travels to Toledo Art Museum where, through May 14, viewers can see 60 paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass works representing the past 14 years of the artist’s career (a short time, given the scale and scope of the show).
Wiley famously takes iconic works from Western art and re-imagines them with black and African-American subjects. The sources of his confrontationally large paintings are often immediately recognizable. At the exhibition’s entrance is his imposing Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, though in his version, an anonymous black man (his subjects are frequently street-cast) in fashionable camouflage attire has taken Napoleon’s place.
While he’s known mostly for his paintings, Wiley also works in sculpture and stained-glass. His bronzes recall Baroque-era portrait sculptures. In Houdon Paul-Louis, Wiley re-interprets Jean-Antoine Houdon’s portrait bust of the well-connected Enlightenment socialite Anne-Germaine Larrivée, but instead of white marble, Wiley uses a dark, luminous bronze. The unzipped jacket on Wiley’s sitter subtly echoes the plunging neckline of Larrivée’s dress. Wiley sometimes adds other layers of meaning by addressing social issues like colonialism and the exploitation of cheap labor. His Cameroon Study is a bronze bust of a man with an athletic shoe on his head (he’s literally underfoot).
A visual highlight of the exhibition (quite literally) is an octagonal room, reminiscent of a chapel, housing a set of backlit stained-glass windows from his series Heroes, Saints, and Martyrs. His use of stained glass evocatively recalls the windows of a cathedral, in which we frequently see martyrs portrayed.
On occasion, I’ll find myself trying to like an exhibition largely out of a sense of obligation; the message could be excellent, but the art itself might be second-rate. Upon entering A New Republic, my unfounded worries the show might not live up to the hype vanished instantly. Kehinde Wiley works masterfully across a wide array of media, and his work certainly resonates as it speaks to the lack of diversity we see in the western cannon. In a revealing moment as I stood in front of one of his paintings, two elderly black women stood beside me just within earshot. After a few moments of lingering contemplation, one very quietly uttered, perhaps to her friend, though quite possibly just to herself, “My God…we are beautiful.”
Additional information and images can be found on the website of the Toledo Art Museum.