Since graduating Yale’s MFA program in 2001, the painter Kehinde Wiley has made no secret of his black identity. For much of the last decade, his work has been boldly Afro-centric, and in a distinctly subversive way. He re-appropriates the regal portrait form of the Old Masters. But instead of casting European aristocrats as his subjects, he paints black urban youth; hoodies and baggie jeans are what we see, not breeches and silk stockings. In the backdrop, Wiley adds vibrant colors with arresting geometric patterns, adding ever more visual pop to these already pungent portraits.
Wiley is only 34, but already his trademark style is beginning to tire. So when he announced not long ago that he would travel the world — to China, Brazil, India and … Israel — many were giddy with anticipation, and perhaps relieved that he wasn’t going back to the same artistic well again.
He titled this global series “World Stage,” and began showing works from it in 2007. But when word spread about the Israel portraits in particular, and the Jewish Museum acted quickly. It purchased one painting, titled “Alios Itzhak,” of a Jewish Israeli, and began to angle for a future, full-length show. Now, on March 9, the museum will officially open “Kehinde Wiley / The World Stage: Israel,” which features 10 portraits Wiley has made, some of them only recently completed, of a diverse set of Israelis—Ashkenazi Jews, Arab Israelis, Ethiopians.
Behind the subjects, he’s painted visual motifs befitting their ethnic origins; arabesque patterns adorn the portraits of Arab Israelis, for instance, and patterns that mimic Jewish paper-cuts, a form of folk-art, are found in portraits of Eastern European Jews. In addition to the 10 Israeli portraits, which are enormous — some of them six-by-eight feet — four other portraits will be on view. Wiley has also been asked to take on an unofficial curatorial role regarding the objects to be displayed with his painting; he made selections among the traditional Jewish paper cuts and ceremonial objects from The Jewish Museum’s exhaustive permanent collection. Many of those objects and patterns are echoed in Wiley’s portraits, tying the show together in what should be one of the art season’s highlights.
“Kehinde Wiley / The World Stage: Israel” will is on view at The Jewish Museum from March 9 to July 29.