Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Kehinde Wiley and His Inspiration

I love when contemporary artists use historical art for inspiration. Kehinde Wiley is one such artist, who often creates portraits of African-American men in poses that mimic specific portraits from the 17th-19th centuries. Since Wiley's portraits show African-American in the latest hip hop street fashion, the portraits provide interesting commentary on fashion, identity, and propaganda. It's also interesting to see how issues of identity (and the creation of identity via portraiture) have existed for centuries, especially when examining the historical paintings which inspired Wiley. Here are two of my favorite Wiley paintings (and the paintings that inspired them):
Kehinde Wiley, Prince Tommaso Francesco of Savoy-Carignano, 2006
See the portrait which inspired Wiley below:

Anthony Van Dyck, Prince Tommaso Francesco of Savoy-Carignano, 1634

Kehinde Wiley, Equestrian Portrait of Philip II, 2009
This portrait by Wiley is a little different, in that he doesn't depict Michael Jackson wearing hip hop street clothes. Jackson actually commissioned this portrait in 2008, but never saw the completed work. J thinks that the inclusion of the cherubs (instead of the angel in the Ruben's painting which inspired Wiley, as shown below) is fitting, given that Jackson was accused of sexually abusing children. I really doubt that Wiley intended to make that reference, but it's an interesting thought. The painting was finished after Jackson's death in 2009 and sold that same year to German collector for $175,000. My favorite thing about this portrait is that it depicts Jackson at the height of his career. I think the armor and pose totally scream "I'm bad, I'm bad, you know it!" Man, you can't help but love MJ's early stuff. He was the Prince of Pop, and a royal equestrian portrait is fitting. Anyhow, you can read more about this portrait here and here.
Rubens, Philip II on Horseback, c. 1628-29
I have to admit, I think Rubens has created a lot more powerful horses than the one in this painting. Wiley's horse has a lot more presence than the one shown here. Maybe the puny horse accounts for why this portrait is not very well-known. Anyhow, if you're interested, the Prado Museum has some discussion about the restoration of this portrait here.

You can see more of Wiley's work on his website and read a little bit more about him on this page of the National Portrait Gallery's site. What do you think of Wiley's portraits? Do you think they raise interesting questions about identity and personal image?

(e, do you remember when you saw L L Cool J's portrait by Wiley (2005) in the NPG? I found out this evening that both L L Cool J and Wiley wanted the portrait to recall John Singer Sargent's portrait of Rockefeller (1917). Pretty cool, huh? Who would have guessed that L L Cool J was familiar with Sargent? Even though I think the green and red pattern in the Wiley portrait is a a little too visually aggressive, I love that the painting recalls a Sargent portrait.)