Kehinde Wiley’s style of fusing contemporary racialized subjects with the portraiture of Old Masters was cemented years ago. It’s nowhere more apparent than in St. John the Baptist II (2006), currently on view in Building the Contemporary Collection: Five Years of Acquisitions.
In his new show, The World Stage: Israel, on view through May 28 at Roberts & Tilton gallery in Los Angeles, the artist follows the same formula with an Israeli twist. His young African-American males are swapped out for Israeli ones. Much like his earlier work, the frame and canvas are a dialectic of contemporary youth culture and cultural inheritance. These subjects — all real people Wiley photographed in Israel — speak to a global economy and localized culture. From branded clothing to military-esque garb, they are juxtaposed with scenes of Middle Eastern desert or “orientalizing” design.
This Israel series figures into Wiley’s larger The World Stage project where the artist turns his portraiture practice to countries with strong social and political footing in a contemporary global culture. Having tackled Lagos, Nigeria and Dakar, Senegal at the Studio Museum in 2008 and Brazil at Roberts & Tilton in 2009, the larger series is a foray into the world through the eyes of a U.S. subject. The work hybridizes local culture (if still plugged into a global network) through Wiley’s marked practice. This is not Israel per se but Kehinde Wiley’s Israel. Wiley’s Old Master aesthetic feels at odds with Israeli culture, a fusion of two things which are simply not alike. The work demands us to understand our positionality in a constantly more connected world. There is indeed something uncanny about this work, something almost uncomfortable in his artistic foray into anthropology. And perhaps anthropology is the best way to think of Wiley’s World Stage project: an attempt at familiarizing the unfamiliar, knowing and representing what can never be known.
IMAGE: Kehinde Wiley, St. John the Baptist II, 2006. Oil on canvas. Promised Gift of Blake Byrne, T’57.