Feb. 20 marked the premiere of a new exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, featuring internationally acclaimed artist Kehinde Wiley.
Wiley is known for his contemporary paintings of urban men of African descent in heroic poses. He often draws from historical works of art such as paintings and statues, to inspire the poses of his models.
The museum will display his latest series, “Kehinde Wiley: Memling,” over the next four months. The collection features eight never-before-seen paintings based on portraits by 15th century Flemish painter Hans Memling.
All eight works were painted to replicate Memling paintings. Unlike much of Wiley’s previous works, which feature colorful, patterned backgrounds, the Memling series stays much truer to its inspirations.
“(The backgrounds) are so densely packed," Wiley said. "They were painstaking reproduced to be as close to the original as possible.”
Along with the replicated backgrounds, the portraits also portray the identical poses of the men in Memling’s portraits but feature African-American subjects.
The Memling series is different from Wiley’s usual works in that the portraits are painted on small wood panels instead of large canvases. This enhances the visibility of his intricate brush strokes
and makes the details even more impressive.
He also chose to place the portraits in antique-looking wooden frames. If you look closely, the names of the models in the paintings are written on the side panels.
As part of the premiere of Wiley’s series, museum curator Sara Cochran led a public discussion with Wiley at the Phoenix Art Museum on Feb. 20.
“The collection represents individuals of color breaking into history," Cochran said. "It is the most empathic statement of the place of race in history.”
The unexpected parallels between Memling and Wiley make his decision to use Memling as an inspiration particularly interesting. In his time, Memling was known as one of the first artists to paint clergymen instead of men of nobility and wealth, much like Wiley is known for portraying urban black men who are not commonly portrayed in art.
Cochran was also impressed with the subtle changes Wiley made to the Memling’s.
“I noticed that the body manner (of the subjects) is the same, but they are engaging with us in a very empathic way, unlike the clergymen who are usually looking down or into the distance,” Cochran said.
Wiley explained this artistic decision in saying, “It was not a move that says ‘I’m dominating this sphere,’ but that says ‘I’m acknowledging the (audience) in a way that is much more human.'”
At the end of the conversation, Wiley announced that up next he would be presenting his entire “The World Stage” series to galleries and museums worldwide. It will be the first time his art will be shown outside of the U.S. and Europe, in countries throughout South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. This is important to Wiley because they are the locations where the models for the series were found.
"Kehinde Wiley: Memling" will be on display at the Phoenix Art Museum from Feb. 20 to June 23, 2013.
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