Kehinde Wiley

We at Beacon Gallery are big fans of Kehinde Wiley. If you haven’t had a chance to get to know his artwork, read on!

(This post is adapted from a similar post on Christine O’Donnell’s other blog, Thoughtsonart.com – both are all her words!)

Kehinde Wiley at the Rubell Museum

Kehinde Wiley, Sleep, 2008, oil on canvas, 132 x 300 inches (335.5 x 762 cm) acquired in 2009 (photo: Christine O’Donnell)

While this piece is not the first of Wiley’s I’d ever seen, take a look at its dimensions. It’s enormous. Its size, the composition and the execution are all magnificent.

With Sleep, Wiley continues his tradition of depicting black men and women in classical poses with flat yet ornately decorated backgrounds. This piece draws from many different aspects of art history for its composition.

A demonstration of its scale for those for whom simple dimensions may not be enough (photo: Christine O’Donnell)

The ways in which Wiley depicts the luminous nature of the skin and the natural folds of the white fabric are spectacular. An idealized version of man, the piece is beautiful to behold yet also may the viewer with many questions, or wanting to delve deeper into the work.

One is left wondering if we are witnessing sleep versus death, especially given the listless nature of the limbs and the allusions to Jesus Christ given through the placement of the feet one on top of another on a plank of wood. The draping of the white cloth also makes an allusion to a burial shroud.

Detail (photo credit: Christine O’Donnell)
Sleep detail (notice the painterly way in which the feet are depicted in both a classical and realistic fashion – this idealized version of man (photo credit: Christine O’Donnell)

Yet, even in these details we are made to understand that this is not an image of Jesus – the nail holes from the crucifixion are not present, the man is not presented as a saint and his pallor is healthy and vital. In this work Wiley evokes the Pieta and other pieces of artwork of the crucified Christ as classical imagery, combined with his own creativity to create something completely new.

Beyond the figure at the center of the piece, the background also plays an important role in Wiley’s pieces. The artist allows the decoration to be both behind the figure and in front of him. It seems to be slowly encroaching on the figure, almost as if the vines were enclosing on this male version of “Sleeping Beauty.” Again, in this reference we find an evocation of medieval and renaissance themes in his artwork and subject matter, but all brought together in a piece that feels ambitious and modern.

The light on the folds of the fabric and the thigh are sublime, with a vine from the background painted in a bright silver in the foreground. (photo credit: Christine O’Donnell)
No detail too small, even the wood is given an extraordinary amount of attention. (photo credit: Christine O’Donnell)

Kehinde Wiley at Art Basel 2019

More is coming in this article – for now, I have Wiley’s work from Art Basel 2019.

Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Kea Loha Mahuta II, 2019, oil on linen 74 3/4 x 94 1/2 (Templon) (photo credit: Christine O’Donnell)

The detail in both these pieces, such as placement of the hands in classical gestures, and the modern clothing were perfect counterpoints to each other.

Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Kea Loha Mahuta II (detail) (photo credit: Christine O’Donnell)
Kehinde Wiley, Rumors of War, 2019 patinated bronze 53 x 64 x 24 inches (Sean Kelly Gallery) (photo credit: Christine O’Donnell)

Rumors of War is an exceptional piece and demonstrates the virtuosity of Wiley and his art.

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