The first thing to say about the Seattle Art Museum’s current show, “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic,” is that the work is monumental with paintings on a giant, much larger than life scale. The second thing to note is that Wiley has taken an original and politically/socially significant approach by placing African American models in the poses and sometimes the actual backdrops of historical paintings that traditionally featured white upper-class figures or saints, paintings that celebrated their status. Then he has surrounded this reconfiguration with “wallpaper” backdrops of repetitive flowers and swirls.
Male models are presented in the clothes they chose for their portraits, everything from camouflage khakis to sports jerseys, outfits that contrast sharply with their roles in the historical paintings, for example, a general on his rearing horse. For the female models, Wiley hired a designer to create elegant Grecian style gowns, plus a hair dresser to design wigs that tower into intricate chandeliers.
Two of the most interesting rooms place these men in the poses of saints in gold leaf frames or stained glass. Here, the faces take on more individuality than in some of the giant paintings where the expressions hold a similar haughty aloofness.
Visitors should be sure to allow enough time to view the accompanying film (approximately 30 minutes long) before viewing the actual exhibit, as they will learn much about Wiley’s intent and his mode of soliciting models off the street, as well as enjoying the reaction of the women to their finished portraits. The film may also raise some questions in the viewers’ minds. For example, why are those intricate and tedious “wallpaper” backgrounds all painted by young Chinese artists in a warehouse studio in Beijing instead of by Wiley? And why, when his intent is to call attention to and elevate the status of African Americans, does it appear that almost all his professional staff, except his barber and tailor, are white?
The exhibit continues through May 8.