TOLEDO (13abc Action News) – It’s only been open for a few days, but thousands of people have already come to see a new exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art.
It’s called Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. Wiley is a pop culture icon and one of the most celebrated artists of our time.
He grew up in Los Angeles and attended graduate school at Yale.
His work has created an important dialogue here as well as around the world, “The inspiration for all this is the world I inhabit. I would describe my work as a visual explosion. It is observations about American culture, observations about body language and urban dress code.”
Many of the people in Wiley’s artwork wear contemporary, hip hop fashion as he recreates portraits from the Old Masters. It puts a contemporary twist on the symbolism found in those works. By replacing the European aristocrats in the paintings with contemporary black subjects, Wiley draws attention to the absence of African Americans from historical and cultural narratives.
There are about 60 of Wiley’s works in the exhibition. The artwork is in six different galleries and it spans 15 years of his career. It includes everything from paintings and sculptures to icons and stained glass.
Wiley’s work is found in private collections and museums around the world. Halona Norton-Westbrook is the Director of Collections at the museum. She traveled to New York to meet with Wiley as they prepared to bring the works to Toledo, “The scale and the beauty of his works are just incredible. It’s great to come to this exhibition and see his incredible skills as a painter in terms of his color choices. They are incredibly complex works and his brush strokes are beautiful. He is one of the most well-known and active contemporary painters, especially in America. He works on a global scale and has a whole series of paintings on display here from his travels to places like China, Israel and Jamaica. ”
His early career started with a simple portrait. It’s from a mug shot Wiley found on the streets of New York. Like the man in this painting, Wiley says most of his subjects are strangers he met on the street, “These are people who were minding their own business and I stopped and asked them if they wanted to be part of the project. What these paintings are about is chance. It’s about slowing down and paying attention to all the beauty that surrounds us. So much of what I do is conceptual art, but I am also concerned with technical mastery. that is very important to me.”
While most of his subjects are strangers, he has done portraits of a few famous people. Michael Jackson is one of them. After getting a message, he first thought someone was playing a trick on him. He soon realized the “King of Pop* was really calling. Wiley says this was the last commissioned portrait of Jackson before his death and Jackson died before it was done,”One of the things people may not know about Michael Jackson is just how knowledgeable he was about historical art He really enjoyed Rubens. He would comment on the early brush strokes of Rubens versus later in his career. He wanted this portrait to be a testament to his place in the world both historically and personally. ”
While his work is certainly modern, it has many elements that pay tribute to the masters. Here in Toledo, his pieces are just steps away from many of the historical works, “On a gut level it means everything to me. This is really what I have been working for all these years. So much of what I love about historical works is the attention to detail. I think we can get that going today too. It’s about paying attention to the right things and the right people. What I really think is great about this is that we are allowing an entire generation to see this type of creativity as normal. I hope in some way I am contributing to the broader revolution of culture.”
Horses are a big part of some of his paintings, and there;s a reason for that. Wiley says it all started during the first Gulf War, “What I was thinking of was creating a body of work that responded to military presence in painting. If you want to get to the heart of that, we’re talking equestrian portraiture.”
In the short time it’s been here in Toledo, Norton-Westbrook says Wiley’s work has already brought thousands to the museum, “People love it for it’s beauty and aesthetic quality. It also taps into something deep and meaningful for the culture. It is one of many reasons we are so excited to have it here.”
The exhibition runs through May 14th. It is free and open to the public.
There are a number of events connected to it.
We’ve posted a link to the museum site if you would like to learn more