On a rainy day in late May, a group of eight handlers and registrars unloads a covered, 9-by-15-foot piece of art from a tractor-trailer in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It’s so large that it won’t fit on the museum’s elevators and must be carried in defiantly through the front door.
What you can’t see underneath is a colorful painting of a young black man wearing a baseball cap and sagging pants, lying in a seductive pose against an ornate floral background.
The homoerotically charged work, “Morpheus” (2008) is modeled after a famous sculpture by 18th-century French artist Jean Antoine Houdon. But this new piece comes from one of America’s biggest art stars, Kehinde Wiley, who’s maintained an odds-defying position near the top of the art world for more than 10 years.
This week, at the tender age of 39, he’s bringing his first midcareer retrospective, “A New Republic,” to Richmond. The exhibit began in Brooklyn last year and traveled to Seattle and Fort Worth, Texas.
Wiley is a portrait artist best known for painting black men in street dress, usually classified as hip-hop style, and placing them in poses from famous paintings by Old Masters — a jarring effect that comments most obviously on the lack of black faces in art history, especially within the aristocratic context of the Western European tradition.
If you’ve been to VMFA in the last decade, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with Wiley’s work. His early painting “Willem van Heythuysen” has become an iconic piece for the museum since former modern art curator John Ravenal purchased it in 2006. The work features a black man from Harlem with a leonine gaze standing behind a sword, modeled after portrait a of Dutch wool merchant from the early-17th century.
The painting has been enormously popular with visitors and teachers, the museum’s associate curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Dr. Sarah Eckhardt says. “We hear about it when it’s down.”
The museum’s foresight was a key to landing the new exhibit. When the managing curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, Eugeni Tsai, was starting the retrospective, she reached out to other museums to use significant works from Wiley’s career. Because of Ravenal, who showed great skill at catching artists on the verge of breaking, the museum had a work the retrospective badly wanted.
Ravenal, now executive director at the acclaimed deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, was actively building a 21st-century collection at the time of the Wiley purchase. He says it was a conscious decision to increase the museum’s representation of work by African-American artists. He loved the respect and dignity with which Wiley treats his subjects.
“He’s partly critiquing the tradition of Western European painting by pointing out the absence of people of color. But he’s also talked about how it’s a two-way lens,” Ravenal says. “All of that pageantry and pomp of European painting lines up with that same interest in hip-hop culture.”
As public institutions, museums are becoming more aware that they need to be more accessible to a diverse public, Ravenal adds: “I think public institutions are more sensitive to being open and inviting. That happens in a lot of ways, but one way is the art on the wall will reflect the appearance of a broader audience.”
Wiley is the most famous black contemporary artist to have a major show at the Virginia Museum, which holds 219 works by 82 black artists — 30 of which are on view. That’s less than 1 percent of its more than 35,000 holdings, in a city where African-Americans make up about half the population.
Wiley is giving a lecture at the museum Friday night, which sold out in a little more than two hours. A few weeks earlier on National Museum Day, the museum distributed 200 free vouchers to the exhibit. And based on the growing online hype, this could be one of its most popular shows in years. Museum planners are estimating more than 55,000 visitors. Undoubtedly, it will attract a youthful demographic.
This is a show that announces, as loudly as Wiley’s subjects demand attention, that the days of VMFA being viewed as your grandparents’ museum are long gone.
Wiley was raised in South Central Los Angeles, where his mother ran a secondhand shop. He never met his father, a Nigerian who’d been studying in America and returned home to raise another family. Wiley and his twin brother stayed busy working among their mother’s antiques.
“Me and my brother were really handy at sanding things down, barging them into something re-purposed,” Wiley says by phone from his studio in Brooklyn. “A big part of it was restoration, taking old junk and fixing it up.
“That very hands-on engagement with the past can’t help but be a part of the way you think about old things, whether they be paintings or sculptures, they’re narratives. It’s in the DNA of what I do now.”
Growing up, Wiley visited a lot of museums and the Huntington Library outside of Los Angeles, where he fell in love with the grandness and stylishness of European paintings and the Old Masters. He began taking art classes at age 11, and a year later his mother sent him to Russia to study art during the fall of the Soviet Union.
“It was my first time leaving the ’hood, leaving America, the identity I knew," Wiley recalls. “It gives you a sense of opportunity and awe. It also gave me an expansive sense of self, that anything is possible.”
“Of course, Russia was in a state of complete transformation and decay which gave me a sense of fragility,” he says, “that what feels permanent is at times fleeting. That kind of polarity between change and permanence is what you’re seeing when you look at the great history of art in the world, met up with the very current and real fashion of the 21st century that you see any young person wearing in the streets of Nairobi or Sao Paulo in my work.”
Wiley graduated with a master’s degree of fine arts from Yale University and earned a coveted artist-in-residence spot at Studio Museum in Harlem. During this period, he found a crumpled mugshot of a young black man on the street that began to inspire his most signature work. He set out to oppose stereotypes and reflect the beauty in his people in a more dignified and heroic manner, beginning a conversation with a lineage of great art.
He also recalls graduating from Yale saddled with debt and an impending sense of doom — but also of freedom.
“I knew I would never be able to pay these student loans back and I would just go find a simple job to support my art habit,” he says. “It was in that context I began making the work I do. You know, ‘I don’t give a fuck, this is the work I want to create.’ And I think people got a sense of that freedom, that sense of art for its own sake. If I can keep a little of that DNA in my life every day [now], I’m on the right track.”
Growing up, the biggest obstacles for Wiley and his development into a world-class painter didn’t come from external sources.
“The biggest [obstacles] come from within,” he says. “The outside forces are the same for many of us as creative thinkers who have an entire history to contend with, great artists whose shoulders you stand on. That anxiety is always going to be there. But how you choose to deal with obstacles or opportunities says a lot about the work you end up making.”
Obsession with skin color is a familiar question for most blacks, he notes, going as far back as their presence in America.
“The notion of the brown-paper-bag test, this anxiety surrounding color is a very real and lived one — but it can also be an aesthetic one,” he says. “The magic within and the obsession with skin can become a complete body of work in and of itself. “
Wiley’s street-casting process involves approaching random people with a look that he likes and inviting them to flip through art history books at his studio where together they pick an image to serve as source material.
The models are involved in their self-representation and get to choose how they’ll dress. A photo is then taken that Wiley uses to create the painting. Sometimes he plays with gender roles, having men pose in a painting that originally featured a female subject.
There have been the inevitable criticisms: that he’s indifferent to the physicality of painting, that his “thin, indifferently worked surfaces leave something to be desired,” in the words of a New York Times review. Or that he cranks out high-priced art using the Old Masters style of factory assistants painting his backgrounds in his huge studio in Beijing.
But Wiley has shown fortitude in following his vision. And his work remains impossible to ignore, even as he’s transcended the insular arguments of the art world to become a pop-culture phenomenon.
He’s had a work commissioned by Michael Jackson (which you can see in the show) and other celebrities and more recently his paintings were featured on the hit Fox television series “Empire.”
Ravenal doesn’t see the criticism of his factory approach as valid as long as the quality of the work is maintained and the artist stays involved.
“The analogy is to the workshops of Old Masters, so in a way it’s a natural extension to be interested in the way they practiced,” he says. “Partly it’s a practical way to complete these large paintings that took more than one person to produce.”
In talking with Wiley, it seems that he’s mostly concerned with the combination of concept and execution — as well as keeping his motivation unsullied.
“One of the things I decided very early on to do was internalize anxiety and fears and turn that into the subject matter,” he says. “What does it feel like to be young, black, American, male, queer, and interested in the history of painting as it relates to the life you lead now? What does America feel like to me? That becomes the subject matter of the work if you’re brave enough to just put it out there. I thought nobody would respond to this when I first began, to my surprise it became my life’s work.”
The big advantage to seeing this Wiley retrospective in Richmond is that VMFA is an encyclopedic museum where visitors can explore objects similar to the source material used by the artist.
There will be nearly 60 works in the retrospective exhibit, arranged chronologically and thematically. Beginning with his early, most well-known work involving black males set in the 17th- through 19th-century portrait styles, through later sculptures and more intimate works. There’s even a very early conceptual video that will be projected titled “Smile” featuring subjects holding smiles as long as possible.
From the secular images of nobility and power, the exhibition turns to his recent obsession: models as elevated saints, icon paintings and stained glass that use religious imagery as source material. Finally, there’s his ongoing World Stage series, which shifts the portrait approach to a global scale: painting brown-skinned subjects in France, Brazil, India, Jamaica, China, Sri Lanka, Lagos and other countries.
Shifts in scale are important to appreciating Wiley’s evolution, curator Eckhardt says.
“I think in general what’s fascinating are the different ways he engages genres within art history and the points he’s making about the original source material and contemporary society,” she says. “He’s doing that in very nuanced ways. When he switches either to a different material or genre — like religious imagery rather than portraits of aristocrats — new things stand out, evoking different questions.”
At the end of the exhibit, in the art lounge, visitors will be able to pick up complimentary cards that give directions to other works in the museum which will be similar to source inspirations for Wiley's art.
Now that he’s being compared to Warhol and others, Wiley has become a celebrity magnet, with much of his work commanding a half a million dollars or more. But it’s never easy at the top, he says.
“Being in the arts-industrial complex is a very tough thing,” Wiley says. “You fight to get there and you fight to stay there. The barriers to entry are very high. Right now, it’s become a very professionalized pursuit where you have to go to the right schools, have the right set of curators and collectors who build consensus around what you do. … No one thinks about these things when they’re starting out drawing and painting.”
Wiley keeps close the first impulse that made him go into art: “That sense of wonder, that I just want to put things down and it feels good to do it,” he says. “You have to hold onto that and remember why.”
He admits that standards are different for high-profile black figures, but as he has with other issues, he incorporated that frustration into his work.
“Most of my friends are artists with names that you would find familiar – we all sit around and complain about this stuff. In the end, there is a double-standard. I think part of it comes from a necessity that came out of the late 50s and 60s that our artists had to be political,” he says. “There was a perception that going into abstraction was self-indulgent and wasteful. Yes, there is an internal set of expectations within black communities too . . . But expectations can be fun to fuck with, it’s really delightful sometimes to use people’s expectations as one of the colors on your palate.”
Wiley says he has a lot of exciting new work coming out later this year, but he can’t talk about it yet. He loves hearing that there is a buzz in Richmond, particularly among young people, about this show.
Toward the end of our conversation, he tells a story of having gone to Tel Aviv for his World Stage series to track down young people, specifically Ethiopian Jews, to paint. He later had an exhibition at what was then considered a somewhat stodgy older institution, the Jewish Museum on the Upper West Side of New York, he says. His show immediately transformed attendance numbers with a completely different demographic.
“It was very exciting to see the power of inviting voices who were there all along into the conversation and not changing the conversation, but allowing it to enter the realm where this ivory tower thing disappears,” he says. “That high and low dichotomy that we assume of high culture is a bit stifling. Once the oxygen comes back into the room you shouldn’t be surprised if life begins to flourish.” S
Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic” opens Saturday at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and runs through Sept. 5. Free for members, children 6 and younger and active-duty military personnel and their immediate families. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for seniors, college students, children 7-17 and groups. Available at vmfa.museum or by calling 340-1405.
You can watch a PBS documentary about the artist, "Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace" here.