Artist Kehinde Wiley has made a name for himself with his larger-than-life portraits of young men of color--many of them hip-hop stars or guys he plucked from the street--in poses from 18th- and 19th-century poses and set against sumptuous backgronds. He's currently embarking on an ambitious multinational series, titled The World Stage, in which he paints men in key locations around the world, where he temporarily relocates and examines "the way in which America thinks about the rest of the world," as he explained to us. Wiley is currently traveling extensively, as he told us, he had most recently been in Shanghai and was planning on jumping to the Dominican Republic next. "Internatonalism is no longer a capital 'I' word. It's increasingly present in everyone's day-to-day life," he said. "And as an artist in the 21st century, it's something that I engage wholeheartedly."
We spoke with Wiley at the Jewish Museum in New York City's Upper East Side, where his current exhibit, The World Stage: Israel, is on view through July 29. It includes 14 paintings as well as 11 works--papercuts and large textiles--chosen by the artist from museum's collection. The story of how this exhibit came about is fascinating in itself.
For his painting, Alios Itzhak (pictured left), a nine-foot tall portrait of a young Jewish Ethiopian-Israeli man, Wiley surrounded him by an intricate decorative background inspired by a traditional Jewish papercut in the Museum's collection. The Museum ended up purchasing the painting for its permanent collection and organized this impressive exhibit.
Astounded by how Wiley is able to convince young men to sit for these portraits, we asked him about the process. "Going into the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to find my models, I found a very different type of Israel than I imagined," Wiley explained. "There is something about beauty and desire, the gaze that's involved. There's something about being chosen out of everyone else on the streets that says you're beautiful enough to be in this painting."
But what about the obvious eroticism conveyed through the direct gaze of the subjects at the viewers? "Implicitly involved in that exchange is something very charged, very sort of homoerotic in that gaze," Wiley said. "It's a feature that has to be seen. It's a rubric through which you must read the world."
Rizzoli is also publishing a monograph of Wiley's work, titled Kehinde Wiley, which is composed of 275 full-color plates (and includes these Israeli portraits), along with essays by Thelma Golden and others.