at Skirball Cultural Center (Through 2 September 2018) Reviewed by Emily Nimptsch
Replete with royal, religious, and luscious floral imagery, Los Angeles-born painter Kehinde Wiley’s Old Master-inspired portraits not only subvert art historical tradition but also notions of power and cultural identity. Renowned for depicting traditionally underrepresented figures, typically African and African-American men, the artist envelopes these empowered subjects in Eurocentric symbols of status and wealth. With the unveiling of Wiley’s noble yet vibrant portrait of former President Barack Obama earlier this year, the timing of the Skirball Center’s Spotlight—Selections from Kehinde Wiley’s The World Stage: Israel could not feel more apropos. This intimate presentation delves into the artist’s photorealistic oeuvre through two monumental paintings, each depicting young Ethiopian men living in Israel.
Wiley originally crafted these two vivid, richly detailed paintings in 2011 as part of his celebrated World Stage series. Underscoring issues of diversity and multiculturalism, this collection focuses on individual nations through revealing and stately portraits of their citizenry. With incarnations in Nigeria and Senegal (2008), Brazil (2009), India and Sri Lanka (2010), Israel (2011), France (2012), Jamaica (2013), and Haiti (2014), the artist wholeheartedly rebuffs harmful stereotypes here
The artist bathes his Israel-centric portraits in themes of marginalization, elitism, and social role reversal à la Kerry James Marshall. Due to their seemingly effortless fusion of contemporary and age-old references, these paintings possess a timeless quality. Our protagonists, who posed for the artist during his month-long stay there in 2010, are not stuffy aristocrats but blossoming, energetic, and dashing young men sporting thoroughly modern graphic t-shirts. The viewer soon comes to realize that this juxtaposition of old and new is not merely limited to the subjects, but extends to the country at large.
As a global melting pot and ancient locale, Israel not only serves as a central hub for the world’s most prominent monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but also houses a plethora of international communities. The viewer here is provided a tantalizing glimpse into daily life in Tel Aviv’s Ethiopian Jewish community and its neighboring Jewish-Arab city of Lod. Far from the calamitous violence frequently seen on the news, Wiley portraits present a utopian vision of peaceful coexistence.
We witness this harmony through the subjects’ blissful union with nature and faith. In Benediter Brkou, a blindingly vivacious canvas of oil and gold enamel, the central figure confidently poses amidst a verdant background with Hebrew text and undulating vines. Akin to a medieval illuminated manuscript, here we see religion and the natural world coalesce in sumptuous serenity.
However, this image also communicates themes of performance, prestige, and pride. Hidden within the twisted greenery are miniature golden peacocks. Known for boldly exhibiting their plumage in the attraction of a mate, the men here seem to be doing the same. They both pose with grace and confidence. Fascinated by the display of masculinity and power, Wiley depicts the dapper Benediter in commanding half-profile with his hand assertively resting on his hip. As he looks down upon the viewer from above, Baroque painter Hyacinthe Rigaud’s 1701 portrait of King Louis XIV of France flashes through the mind. Tying his power to both the divine and nature, this absolute monarch labeled himself the “Sun King” as he notoriously consolidated royal power.
Bristling with opulent fineries, Rigaud’s portrait acts as propaganda. One of the most striking examples of this excess is the king’s flowing purple robe. As this hue was nearly impossible to procure and manufacture, it was also inordinately expensive during this period. Only royalty could afford these violet accouterments, and therefore the robe exudes authority and exclusivity. Wiley turns narrative on its head with the decision to dress Benediter in purple pants. While this fashion choice may seem meaningless, it actually reveals a rejection of this restriction and privilege. Continuing with this theme, the viewer also notices that these trousers feature a Burberry-esque tartan pattern. As another status symbol, this time among the British upper-class, the appropriation of this design boldly declares equality and luxury for all.
Further accentuating this motif of universal virtue and majesty, visitors may notice a diminutive crown floating above each sitter’s head. A sublime golden hue also suffuses Wiley’s other portrait on display here, Solomon Mashash. Instead of a full-length depiction as seen in Benediter Brkou, here we witness an imposing bust portrait of a striking young gentleman. He dons a yellow t-shirt complete with regal depictions of two cheetahs and the words “Wild World” emblazoned on his chest. This curvaceous script is reminiscent of Jewish calligraphy. We also witness this unification of religious and African elements in the two crowned lions perched near the subject’s shoulders. As a symbol of both the English monarchy and the Hebrew tribe of Judah, this multidimensional emblem presents an enlightened, multicultural mindset.
Wiley also taps into the mysticism and community spirit found in Judaism through visual language in the form of 19-century Judaica paper cutouts. While many other religions promote the work of professional artists and artisans, Jewish followers from all walks of life are encouraged to help craft this folk art. These intensely personal projects have historically lined the walls of the synagogues and embellished traditional tombstones. We see Wiley dipping his toe into this equalitarian art form through his compelling use of symbols and calligraphy.
Meaning is found throughout these images. Even the frames themselves speak volumes. At the top of each enclosure, we observe some carved decoration. While small, these details are full of symbolic resonance. They both point to three crucial aspects of the Jewish faith―the priestly blessing known as the hands of Kohen, the Lion of Judah which symbolizes the Jewish people, and finally the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. Together, these carvings and the portraits as a whole reveal the enduring, sacred framework of modern Jewish life.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.