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Kehinde Wiley, Morpheus

Kehinde Wiley, Morpheus (2008), oil on canvas [Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA, Feb 11-May 8] © Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

Seattle Art Museum
Seattle WA – Feb 11-May 8, 2016

Kehinde Wiley, Shantavia Beale II

Kehinde Wiley, Shantavia Beale II (2012), oil on canvas [Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA, Feb 11-May 8] © Kehinde Wiley Photo: Jason Wyche

Peter Kehinde Wiley, Colonel Platoff on His Charger, Man in the Herring Bone Suit

Kehinde Wiley, Colonel Platoff on His Charger (2007–8), oil on canvas [Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA, Feb 11-May 8] © Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley, Houdon Paul-Louis

Kehinde Wiley, Houdon Paul-Louis (2011), bronze with polished stone base [Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA, Feb 11-May 8] Photo: Sarah DeSantis

Kehinde Wiley, Leviathan Zodiac

Kehinde Wiley, Leviathan Zodiac (2011), oil and gold enamel on canvas [Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA, Feb 11-May 8] © Kehinde Wiley Photo: Robert Wedemeyer, courtesy of Roberts & Tilton

Kehinde Wiley, Anthony of Padua

Kehinde Wiley, Anthony of Padua (2013), oil on canvas [Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA, Feb 11-May 8] © Kehinde Wiley Photo: Max Yawney, courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton

Not since the death of Jean-Michel Basquiat has an African-American artist achieved such recognition and acclaim as Yale graduate Kehinde Wiley. His Seattle Art Museum survey spoofs British and European portrait painters from the 15th century on – Gainsborough, Titian, Reynolds, Ingres and others – mimicking scenes from the originals but inserting African and African-American individuals (mostly young men). In this way, he upgrades the status of his subjects, deifying them in some cases. Exquisitely painted, with backgrounds in a few instances painted by a team in China or New York, the pictures mesh perfectly with SAM’s European portraits in an adjacent gallery.

The sitters, dressed in ordinary clothing but placed in grandiose settings, exude tension, which underscores a thoughtful humour and elicits observations about how minorities were not only long ignored by Western art but, when they were included, were typically represented as slaves, soldiers or courtiers. Wiley’s Postmodern juxtaposition of past and present, oppressed and oppressors, upsets conventional expectations: the paintings are gorgeously done, but their content can be deeply upsetting when unravelled.

Although Wiley now includes women as his subjects, it is worth mentioning that he is a self-identified gay. Here, then, is another interesting parallel, for the strong erotic component in Wiley’s portraits was also present in European art through the tradition of the female nude – subject to, as feminist theory puts it, the “male gaze.”

Matthew Kangas


 Sun, Feb 14, 2016