Wk 11 — Artist OTW Student Choice

Artist: Kehinde Wiley

Media: Painting/Portraiture

Website: https://kehindewiley.com/

Instagram: @kehindewiley

The artist I chose to write about this week is Kehinde Wiley. He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the San Francisco Art Institute and later earned his Masters of Fine Arts from Yale. Based in New York, Wiley is a portrait artist best known for his depictions of urban, black, and brown men worldwide. In his art, Wiley attempts to upend traditional forms of portrait painting by incorporating modern ideas and techniques. Wiley is best known for his portrait of President Barack Obama created in 2018 that now lies in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

One of Wiley’s pieces called “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps” depicts a black man in casual clothes riding a white horse pointing to somewhere in the distance. The horse is rearing on what seems to be rocks and the background is a gold and red damask pattern. The painting is framed in a large elaborate traditional golden frame. The painting itself is very large as it is 102 1⁄3 in by 87 in. Wiley uses rich colors to create this hyperrealistic painting that looks as though it can be a photo. His strokes are well blended giving the painting a soft tone.

Wiley’s portrait directly mimics Jacques-Louis David’s “Napoleon Crossing the Alps.” Wiley’s version is less traditional in the sense that this style of portraiture is traditionally associated with wealth, prestige, and historical artwork, which is not what this painting depicts. This portrait juxtaposes images of urban culture, in the way that the man is dressed, with these traditional associations, and paints a black man in a historical position of power. This explores the idea of how black men throughout history have not held positions of high power. It challenges the idea that this style of art is typically reserved for powerful historical figures, and brings to light social issues that have persisted throughout history.

I really admire Wiley’s artwork and the message that it sends. I think that this is a unique and effective way to provoke conversation regarding social issues in a relatable and familiar form. I can remember seeing the portraits that these paintings mimic in high school and elementary school, and seeing this modern take is refreshing. I think that the issues that Wiley is bringing up about poverty, racism, and inequality are relevant issues discussed today. I can relate to this in the way that I have witnessed and experienced these social issues myself.

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