Gay, African American, and Los Angeles Native are just a few of distinctions defining artist Kehinde Wiley. Wiley's newest art exhibit, The World Stage: Israel, is currently being featured at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, and will be open to the public starting February 14 through May 27.
Wiley's work is multi-faceted and contemplates complex issues in a bold way. Inspired by historical Judaica folk craft, Wiley takes his subjects off the street and turns them into beautiful paintings glimmering with grandeur.
With a homoerotic twist, Wiley paints chiseled images of black men which maintain a, “sense of dignity in each pose,” Wiley told 429Magazine. Each model is painted standing in front of an eccentric background of colorful and symbolistic images of Ethiopian and Israeli derived backdrops.
Some of Wiley's models are famous in their own right, like Kalkidan Mashasha, a well known Ethiopian-Israeli hip-hop artist, while others are people he met on the street or in a local night club. When asked about how he found his models, Wiley explained, “people find ways of finding each other.”
In addition to the vibrant colors and precise line work, Wiley focuses on the intersection of gender, sex, race, and space.
“When you are on the peripheral of standardized sexualities you might be able to criticize the whole enterprise of meeting rituals and social organizations and certain rituals that we put ourselves through," said Wiley regarding the influence of his sexuality on his work. "And maybe in that sense, that outsider stance allows me [a] slightly more nuanced and critical view.”
Wiley's paintings are large and hard to ignore as he paints proud, bold, nearly regal images of black men, many who are gay, and putting them in public spaces. By doing this, he is deconstructing concepts of normalcy, including heteronormativity, the cultural bias in favor of opposite-sex relationships and against same-sex relationships.
The show curator, Karen Tsujimito, told 429Magazine that Wiley is trying to put all identities aside and focus on the portrait, “a dark skinned person with all the grandeur and presence.”
Wiley went on to explain that male beauty in painting “seems to be the elephant in the room.” It's an uncommon image in art and when black, gay bodies are displayed in public spaces, power is established.
“I really love the trickster stance that the artist is capable of occupying. The artist is one of those agents that allows for destabilization to be the affair of the day," said Wiley. "As opposed to the subject matter being fixed, the subject matter itself is the shift... this entire exhibition is a perfect example of that.”