By interacting with art from the past a contemporary artist can often create something new and powerful.
There are few forms of art more formulaic than the portrait. That’s not exactly a complaint—more than perhaps any other form of art, portraits serve a purpose. Whether through canvas and paint, or marble, clay, or bronze their job is to convey what a person looks like, and to commemorate the ideas for which the person stands. If they don’t do that, they still could be a good work of art, but they fail as a portrait.
A few years ago when President Obama’s official portrait was unveiled, it caused quite a stir. To be sure, it looked very much like Barack Obama. It was the setting that jolted. Perhaps you’ll remember--rather than, say, having the President seated at a desk, the artist placed him in a chair leaning slightly forward with his elbows on his knees against what looked like a wall covered in bright green ivy. New York Times noted that the artist had depicted the President “not as a self-assured, standard-issue bureaucrat, but as an alert and troubled thinker.”
That description also applies to the artist who created it. He’s a man named Kehinde Wiley, a Nigerian-American born in Los Angeles in 1977. He came to prominence through his style of painting people of African descent in settings that evoke formal aristocratic paintings from the Baroque era. Think royal portraits of Louis XIV, or the Duke of Marlborough on horseback. Wiley explains that by painting this way, his work imbues average people with a dignity that society has so far neglected to bestow.
His latest piece is a massive equestrian sculpture that was just purchased by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and installed last month in front of its building in Richmond.
Wiley conceived of the work while visiting that city’s famous Monument Avenue back in 2016. He pondered deeply what he was seeing and the civic significance of it. When a city has monumental pieces of public art displayed in one setting—as in along a prominent boulevard—the content of that public art says much about how the city thinks of itself. The first monument along the avenue was an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee that went up in 1890. A statue of Confederate General JEB Stuart was put in place in 1907, followed by ones of Jefferson Davis the next month, Stonewall Jackson a decade later, and a Confederate Naval Captain named Matthew Maury in 1929. See a pattern? A much smaller statue of African American tennis pioneer and Richmond native Arthur Ashe was added in 1996.
From this experience, Wiley set about making one the most impressive pieces of art on view today. More on this next week.