This weekend we are excited to visit the Brooklyn Museum again to see Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, which opens on Friday. And while we're down near Prospect Park, we'll head over to Tom's to fill up on wonderfully greasy diner food before the show.
THE ART /
Kehinde Wiley is a transformative portraitist. He finds his models mostly on the street in New York, regular-looking young black Americans, and places them in an context of ornate beauty and over-the-top decoration, welcoming them into the world of pre-modern European paintings of dukes and earls and kings. Wiley has a formula that he rarely deviates from -- a dark-skinned contemporary subject in a pose pulled from an art history book -- and the naturalistic paintings on display in "A New Republic" are consistently striking.
Wiley's paintings draw attention to the obvious absence of black people in most of the portraits we see at museums, especially the "Look at how rich and powerful I am!" portraits of the Old Masters' era. In "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps," for example, Wiley turns an anonymous young black man into a world-conquering hero, sitting atop Napoleon's horse in an echo of Jacques-Louis David's 1801 portrait of the emperor. It is not easy to tell a centuries-long story about the history of race and power and art with just an image, but Wiley has figured out how to do it, and do it well.
And another thing: these paintings are gorgeous. Like the famous European painters whose compositions he follows, Wiley has a seemingly-unlimited technical ability to create wonderfully alive people with his paintbrush. The backgrounds he and his studio assistants create are eye-candy in the best possible way, ornate and decorative like the wall of a medieval mosque. Wiley's subjects, who choose their own poses by flipping through art history books at Wiley's Williamsburg studio, are triumphant figures who deserve their places on canvas. The colorful compositions stick in your memory long after you've moved on from them, the visual equivalent of a McCartney melody that won't leave your head for days.
Wiley has made a career of exploring what happens when you combine contemporary and classical within a single painting. At first, these paintings are a jarring mix-up, maybe even comical. But spend time with these wonderful combinations of subject and context, and you'll see how fitting they really are. Just as Wiley's subjects effortlessly strike the poses of feudal lords and emperors, Wiley himself seamlessly plays the role of Old Master, harnessing his immense technical skill and powerful artistic vision to create the beautiful portraits of "A New Republic."
WHAT TO DO AFTER /
Whenever we make a day out of going down to the Brooklyn Museum, our first thought is always Tom's. It's a relaxed neighborhood diner just a few blocks away, on Washington Avenue. You'll probably have to wait in line on a weekend morning, but trust us, the Mexican omelette is worth it.