Kehinde Wiley introduced himself as a poor public speaker at an art talk organized by Boise Art Museum June 21 at Boise State University. Standing at the podium in a rust-colored sport coat, he opened with a jab at his own slideshow presentation.
"This is not Boston. Clearly," he said, after mistakenly pulling up a slide with the logo for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The audience chuckled.
Wiley delivered an address on the sources and inspirations behind The World Stage: Israel, an exhibition that opened June 22 and runs through Sunday, Oct. 27 at BAM. The presentation included nary an "um" or "uh," demonstrating Wiley's mastery of the theory and praxis of fine art, humor and rhetorical fluency. From his paintings of young black men striking poses found in European portraiture, to the coat he wore, Wiley is rife with conceits.
"I want you as the viewer to be suspicious," he said.
Wiley's portraits evoke ethnic, cultural, economic and gender struggles. But Wiley empowers his subjects through hypermasculine poses and imperious facial expressions without irony or anger.
"For artists, it can be suffocating to have a transgressive agenda presupposed upon you. You can never be free, but sort of act like it," he said.
The World Stage: Israel is one of several similar exhibitions of Wiley's work featuring street-sourced models from around the world. The BAM exhibition draws faithfully from black Jewish and Arab-Israeli models who Wiley encountered in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as well as motifs from Jewish marriage contracts, Torah scrolls and other examples of Jewish visual art.
His portraits are enormous. One of the largest, "Alios Itzhak" (2001), is 115 inches by 80 inches, with the subject holding a pose recalling 18th century Dutch portraiture. Wound about his arms and chest are decorative blooming vines and wild animals rendered in explosive color that seem to draw the hyper-real subject into the background.
"Scale has a lot to do with modernism, bravado and chest beating," Wiley said.
Wiley's paintings give nods to traditional culture, marginalization, race and gender, but they don't tackle wealth and poverty of power so much as they convey yearning and desire, pivoting away from the politics of oppression. Standing in BAM, it's easy to spend 15 minutes looking at a single painting, examining its nuance and realism, seeking out details and absorbing Wiley's grand visions. The portraits exude sage humor and grace--never indulging in bitterness or lofty philosophizing.
"It's not a direct portrait of anyone. It's a picture of a set of desires," he said. "I'm jettisoning some of the high seriousness that was in the room."