I’ve never been as excited for a museum exhibition as I was for the opening of Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic” at Seattle Art Museum (SAM). The New York-based, Yale-trained artist is known for his larger than life, vividly colored portraits depicting young men of color in historical poses and scenes. His Anthony of Padua (pictured above), for example, is based on El Greco’s 14th century original, and like so many of his pieces, seeks to draw attention to, and counter, the historical absence of people of color in painting and art.
The inspiration for this body of work was a discarded mugshot of a young African American man, which Wiley found on a Harlem street. He started thinking about mugshots as “a perverse type of portraiture,” where subjects have no control over their positioning, in contrast to 18th century portraits of subjects “positioning themselves in states of stately grace and self-possession.” (A portrait of that mugshot is part of “A New Republic,” and it’s one of my favorites).
My enthusiasm about Wiley’s SAM exhibition is twofold: the art is strikingly beautiful; and, Wiley’s work is rooted in deep social questions of race, identity, power, and privilege. The work is powerful, and in my book, a must-see. It was also an important reminder that a single story does not change the world, and that art is art––it doesn’t necessarily exist to change the world, but to spark conversation, and perhaps, set viewers on a path towards action down the road. As Wiley told The Stranger’s art critic Jen Graves, “In the end, I’m not changing negative history or stereotypes. All I’m doing is rubbing these two oppositional forms together and creating a sensation that’s bittersweet because the art points to something, but it’s not in and of itself a redemptive act.”
“A New Republic” is on view at Seattle Art Museum through Sunday, May 8. Discount tickets are available on Thursday, May 5 (the first Thursday of the month).
Image: Anthony of Padua, 2013, Kehinde Wiley, American, b. 1977, oil on canvas, 72 × 60 in., Seattle Art Museum, gift of the Contemporary Collectors Forum, 2013.8. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Max Yawney, courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.