This month’s featured artist is one whose paintings and growing body of work have become instantly recognizable to so many of us who are passionate about the arts. Kehinde Wiley has an incredible talent for reinterpreting past artistic styles and traditions, making them entirely his own. His use of the Old Masters as a source of inspiration has encouraged all of us to look at paintings and their subjects in a new light.
Born in Los Angeles, California, to an American mother and a Nigerian father, Kehinde Wiley began his artistic journey at a young age, participating in an after-school art program to keep him and his brother off of the streets. After being selected to study at a conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wiley discovered an avid interest in portraiture and decided to continue his studies in painting. He went on to earn a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999, and later earned an MFA from Yale University in 2001.
Wiley’s many references to Old Masters paintings are evident in the ways he portrays his larger than life subjects realistically and chooses to pose them in active and heroic stances that blend the contemporary with classical modes of representation. He also intently focuses on representations of masculinity and physicality in relation to young men of color, a trademark of his paintings that he carried on from his early works that were based on photographs of young men in Harlem. His works are large-scale and intricate, and each is full of details, from what a subject is wearing to the choice of varied and colorful backgrounds.
In 2017, Wiley was commissioned to paint President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The painting is one of his most recognizable works, and it is full of symbolism with vivid depictions of chrysanthemums, jasmine, and blue lilies that represent the former president’s heritage and the significant places he lived and worked in his early life and career.
Wiley’s pieces can now be found all over the country in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Denver Art Museum, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and others. His recently unveiled Go stained-glass triptych on the ceiling of the Moynihan Train Hall at Pennsylvania Station in New York shows just how versatile and talented Wiley is as an artist, and his works call on us as viewers to rethink what we know about classical portraiture and who is represented in these pieces.