Where Swagger Meets Stoicism

Kehinde Wiley's brilliant b-boy portraiture brings vivid color to black.

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My introduction to portrait artist Kehinde Wiley was happenstance—a tag-along-type adventure with a photographer friend to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Upon entering the gallery, I was greeted by space: a labyrinth of hollowed rooms demanding silence on behalf of the stark white walls. Amid this absence, Wiley drew me in with bright colors and decadence, massive canvases and intricate regalia. I was captivated—never allowed to blink—and I loved every moment of the intake.

The Brooklyn-based artist's work is being featured in "RECOGNIZE!"— a four-part exhibition on the culture behind hip-hop music at the National Portrait Gallery until Oct. 26. There are many artists on display, each utilizing a different medium to entice their gallery-going audience. Some use graffiti, some use photography, but Kehinde lures with paint.

Using race, gender and class as his central themes, 29-year-old Wiley reforms the world of Western art—using black male subjects where white once dominated. His featured works are primarily period pieces—renaissance rivals in pose and positioning—but the style is all his own. It was this style, a veritable clash of cultures, that blossomed during Wiley's time as an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001. Since 2002, Wiley, who holds an MA in fine arts from Yale University, has been featured in numerous group shows and solo exhibitions: Passing/Posing (Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 2002); Rumors of War (Deitch Projects, 2005); and Infinite Mobility (Columbus Museum of Art, 2005-06), to name a few.

Wiley's contribution to the "RECOGNIZE!" exhibit features a selection of pieces done for VH1's 2005 Hip Hop Honors, in which several iconic music artists were immortalized on canvas. MCs and musicians like LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane were transformed into figures formed and praised before their time. Politicians, lords and kings were all portrayed anew, donned in brown swagger and stoicism.

Ice-T is Napoleon off to war, spear in one hand, septer in the other. His kingly presence and puffed-up demeanor is preserved in paint as if constantly ready for battle. Except, screw it—he's Ice-T and there's no way he's messing up his fresh black Jordans with blood spatters. Let some lowly MC handle the casualties. You see, the beauty that Wiley interprets and constructs is twofold. First, there is the overall appeal of neon against beautiful brown hues; flowery borders and regalia embracing seemingly unmoved, and unapologetic, men. Then there are the details: the way Ice-T grips his septer like a Glock, the creases in LL's pants as he poses like Nelson Rockefeller, not to mention those freshly manicured fingernails. Each detail is a discovery; a dimension of wit, irony, or pathos added to the black faces so often written off by society.

Arguably, the best piece in the bunch is "Triple Portrait of Charles I." Comprised of three adjoining portraits, this particular work offers multiple views of one subject, in both a literal and figurative sense. Its inspiration came from a portrait of former King of England Charles I—a man who believed in his divine right to rule. The original, done by Sir Anthony van Dyck around 1636, was painted so that a sculptor could create a three-dimensional likeness of the king's image. Centuries later, Wiley is able to add multiple conceptual dimensions all by himself.

 

Every face of the new-age "Charles" has a different story to tell, a singular identity that parallels its mate. Pastel flowers embrace the boy with three faces. Bulbs and leafy regalia of orange, pink and yellow hug his maroon-and-white hoodie. Sideway stares peek out from his hood on both sides of a centered portrait where the look is dead-on and the power is absolute.

But there is more to "Charles." His bravado begins to dwindle at the fringes. The look of the left is slick yet suspicious, while the right side shows only vulnerability—weary, questioning eyes with a hint of fear.

That is the genius of Wiley's work. Everything is a contradiction. Everything is the truth. Everything is beautiful.