Kehinde Wiley (born 1977) had achieved international art stardom long before his official portrait of Barack Obama sent attendance numbers at the National Portrait Gallery sailing through the roof. But as Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis did this summer with its exhibit of work by Amy Sherald (Michelle Obama’s official portraitist), the Saint Louis Art Museum will ride the wave of Wiley’s elevated celebrity as it fields big crowds for Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis, on view Oct. 19-Feb. 10, 2019.
The exhibit’s eleven larger-than-life portraits all carry a double St. Louis connection: the subjects are all St. Louisans (people the artist encountered on the street in Ferguson and predominantly African American north St. Louis), and their poses are adapted from historic European paintings in the museum’s collection, including works by Jusepe de Ribera, Joshua Reynolds, Gerard ter Borch, Jean-Francois Millet and Otto Muller.
The older works are not installed in the Wiley exhibit, but, the museum hopes, their absence will inspire excursions to the European galleries to seek them out. Wiley deliberately paints his unmistakably contemporary, mostly African American subjects in the lofty poses of European nobility to draw attention to the lack of representation of black subjects in the Western art canon, and to let his subjects assume the role of the colonial masters, “the former bosses of the Old World,” a gesture of empowerment that has yet to be fully realized.
His backgrounds—intricate, florid patterns drawn from wallpaper or architectural ornamentation—partially envelope the subject as they creep into the front plane and further associate the sitter with the Western society that originally commissioned such decoration.
Thusly equipped with the visual accoutrements of power, Wiley’s subjects exude the easy confidence born of privilege.
Wiley sets a high bar for his art—a grand and defiant reply to 500 years of European portraiture—and achieves it with intellectual rigor and technical brilliance.