New York-based painter Kehinde Wiley‘s current exhibit Kehinde Wiley: Memling at the Phoenix Art Museum is attracting national attention, most recently via a mention in Time Magazine’s ‘Pop Chart’ in the March 18 issue. Wiley’s eight portraits take their poses and contexts from the works by the legendary 15th century Flemish master Hans Memling but Wiley has substituted contemporary sitters for the historical figures.
According to the Phoenix Art Museum‘s website, at a time when portraits were still rare, Memling was among the first to paint individuals who were not royalty or members of the clergy. Memling’s portraits of increasingly influential powerful merchant class of his day represent a quiet revolution within Flemish society. The forms of Memling’s painting were just as surprising. He placed his sitters outdoors beneath sunny skies and within placid verdant landscapes, occasionally framed by architectural details such as colored marble columns. These naturalistic setting granted his sitters a veracity and life not found with the single colour backgrounds previously used for individual portraiture. Memling’s use of nature and evocation of three dimensional space was high influential in both the Netherlands and Italy.
Wiley references Memling’s painting as part of his larger project to explore the place of the individual within society by reevaluating questions of how young men of color are seen and defined. Presented in elaborate frames, Kehinde’s portraits place his modern sitters at the heart of culture and history. Despite their intimate size, Wiley’s portraits loose none of their impact and power. The smaller scale demands close inspection and personal engagement. The active gaze of his sitters—a departure from Memling’s work—leads the viewer to think more carefully about the individual lives and experience behind the individuals depicted in the images.
Over the last decade, Kehinde Wiley has risen to international prominence with his large-scale heroic portraits that address the cultural perception and social status of young men of color within contemporary culture. Working with important images from art history that have defined our collective way of seeing the powerful, wealthy and privileged, his paintings blur the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation. His larger-than-life figures command a respect that is often in stark contrast with his sitter’s disenfranchised and anonymous backgrounds. Wiley’s career has been built on this clash of cultures that seeks to challenge the way we perceive and define others.
His exhibition will be on display at Phoenix Art Museum until June 23. To see more of Wiley’s work, go to kehindewiley.com.
article by Lori Lakin Hutcherson via phxart.org