The narrowing eyes glance sideways across the room and seem to ask, “What are you looking at?” At the same time, they draw you into the small Sinton Gallery at the Taft Museum of Art. Inside, other young black males meet your gaze from every direction.
Do you feel uncomfortable? What would you do if the men themselves were present, rather than their portraits? Does it make a difference that most of them have their hands held in prayer? In this chapel-like setting, take a moment to reflect on whatever stereotypes you hold about race, status and even the Taft.
“Sexy” and “hot” aren’t adjectives that spring to mind when thinking about the stately museum and its collection. But those words do describe the international star power of New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley. And it’s tough to imagine a place better suited for his small-yet-bold Memling series than the Taft. Wiley’s signature is to rethink the Old Masters with a modern eye.
“He’s kinda the sexiest African-American contemporary painter in the art world,” says art appraiser Morgan Cobb, a museum trustee.
“He’s a hot commodity,” curator Tamera Muente agrees. Days after the Taft exhibit opened, Wiley wrapped up his Modern Kings of Culture series for Grey Goose vodka, depicting NBA star Carmelo Anthony, Grammy winner Swizz Beatz and director Spike Lee.
Born in 1977 in South Central Los Angeles and educated at Yale, Wiley is famous for grand-scale, hyper-realistic paintings featuring black men in Hip Hop clothes against bright and elaborate floral backgrounds. Though from the streets, the sitters adopt the sophisticated poses of the privileged white men depicted in Renaissance works. Some of these canvases, measuring about 72-by-96 inches, have loomed large at 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati.
But in 2013, Wiley shifted his style to create a collection of intimate (15-by-20 and smaller) paintings modeled after portraits by 15th century Flemish painter Hans Memling. As soon as the oil-on-wood series debuted at the Phoenix Art Museum, the Taft knew it needed to bring the eight pieces here, for several reasons.
The Taft has a long history of supporting the work of African-American artists, dating to the foyer murals painted by Robert S. Duncanson in the mid-1800s. While the museum does not own a Memling, Wiley’s art is the perfect complement and contrast to other Northern Renaissance works in its collection. And the summer timing couldn’t be better with the 10th anniversary of the Freedom Center.
“Wiley and Memling are both about the individual,” Muente says. Memling was among the first to paint the rising merchant class; before the mid-1400s, portraits were reserved for nobility and church leaders. Departing from traditional solid backgrounds, he often placed his subjects outdoors or by windows overlooking landscapes.
Wiley has copied these scenes in precise detail. (Beneath each Wiley painting, Muente has installed a photo of the original work.) The artist customized the frames to resemble religious triptychs of the Renaissance period. But black men in T-shirts and hoodies have taken the place of Memling’s white men in cloaks and robes. They hold the same traditional symbols of status — a coin, a letter, a book — while also sporting contemporary ones, such as a diamond stud, wristwatch or tattoo.
Unlike Memling’s subjects, most of these young men look right at the viewer. Noting Wiley’s intent to create a personal connection, Muente took care to place each of the little shrines at eye level. In Phoenix, she says, the portraits sat higher and were in a larger gallery.
“When you’re eye-to-eye, it breaks down barriers,” Cobb observes. “Each painting is a room in a room.”
The small exhibit compels the viewer to spend time getting to know each portrait and to seek out the young man’s name inscribed on the triptych doors. Unfortunately, the lighting and the inscriptions themselves are so dark that not all the names can be seen.
That anonymity is an irony in a celebration of the individual. But the circumstance raises a nagging question about judging people we don’t know.
Wiley employs what he calls “streetcasting” in seeking out his models, approaching people on the sidewalks of New York and around the world to pose for his paintings. Inserted into Memling’s scenes, Wiley’s young subjects suddenly become men of status. It’s a transformative exercise. But unless the paintings in the museums change the stereotypes on the streets, there is no new renaissance.
KEHINDE WILEY: MEMLING continues through Oct. 5. Taft Museum of Art, 316 Pike St., Downtown. Artist talk 6:30 p.m. Sept. 17; $15, $10 members and students. Registration required: 513-684-4515 or taftmuseum.org.