When it came time for Annibale Carracci to decorate the gallery vault of the Palazzo Farnese he looked to the genius of Michelangelo and his Sistine Chapel frescoes. Ignudi, medallions, architecturally framed scenes, muscular figures, drama, movement etc., he took it all and reshaped it to form his own vision. Artists are no strangers to appropriation; this has been a common practice since the early days of western art and to this day they are still looking to the past for guidance and knowledge, a continuation cycle which helps art move forward.
Kehinde Wiley, A Dead Soldier, 2007, oil on canvas, 60 x 144 inches
This approach can also be a double edge sword, putting artists on a very thin line between original continuation and simple imitation. Some artists may fall flat in the pursuit of the “old masters” aesthetic with their pastiche art watering down the truth in painting and art in general. Fortunately this can not be said about Kehinde Wiley, an artist who mastered a career in shaping his work after 16th – 19th century European art. His new body of work Down, at Deitch Projects, is his most ambitious to date; an exhibit of “heroic” scale paintings of African-American males in recumbent or fallen poses taken from Holbein, Mantegna, Houdon, Maderno, Restaout and Clesinger.
Mr. Wiley has become one of today's most important artists, with works included in major museum and private collections. His art hit a mark in the art world by presenting hip hop/urban culture with a sophisticated delicate edge. Young black men taken out of the streets of Brooklyn set their hard-core image aside as they pose for portraits modeled after prominent political figures from history and religious/mythological characters.
The juxtaposition of Wiley's strong males and delicate, fragile poses can be very intriguing, almost having a Caravaggesque homoerotic quality to them. The most impressive work out of the new group is Sleep, a larger than life canvas towering high above the other paintings with a semi-nude male. This pose of a sleeping muscular man triggers one to think back to images of the Deposition and Entombment of Christ painted so beautifully by great artists such as Titian and Rubens.
His repetitive flowers patterns, with their bold rich hues are cultural connections between traditional African textiles and contemporary art. These lively forms move about between foreground and background playfully taking over the sitter's space. Undeniably it is the pattern that sets Wiley's art apart from other modes of contemporary representational painting; the flowers become abstract shapes forcing the viewer to look at the work as an object on itself as opposed to a portrait of a young man.
Down will be showing at Deitch Projects until December 20, 2008 and then it will travel to ArtPace in San Antonio in January.