Thursday, June 21, 2018
Repainting art history (story audio)
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Repainting art history
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Artist Kehinde Wiley painted his own version of "The Three Graces," by Pieter Rubens, using men he met on the streets of Harlem. The center figure, with his back to the viewer, is wearing a shirt sporting the emblems of the Negro Baseball League. (Photo courtesy of Kehinde Wiley)
If you could insert yourself into a famous painting, who would you be? How would it feel to see yourself hanging on a wall in a museum? A new exhibit at Franklin Art Works in Minneapolis takes young men from Harlem and puts them front and center in art history.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Imagine you're in a gallery, staring at a beautiful Baroque portrait of a noblewoman. It's enormous -- 6 feet by 8 feet, with a thick gilded frame. The background is filled with luscious patterns -- green vines on a pink background.

Who posed for this elegant painting? A young black man dressed in a blue and white Adidas track suit.

This is the work of Kehinde Wiley, a popular young artist who's become a darling of the New York scene. Wiley did a residency in Harlem, and wanted to create art that allowed him to interact with guys on the street.

"I began actually stopping complete strangers on the streets, and asking them if they wanted to pose for a portrait," Wiley says.

Men who accepted Wiley's offer would flip through books of Baroque art, and together they'd talk about what images they liked and who they might portray. Some saw themselves as God or Jesus Christ; others as a minor figure in the background.

Whoever they chose, Wiley gave them the full treatment.

True to the Baroque style, Wiley works in a large studio, and has a staff of painters. They fill in the background chintz work and color, while he focuses on the person and the clothing. The models pose in whatever clothes they wore that day, usually basketball shirts and shorts or running pants.

"I started looking at sports gear differently," Wiley says. "Ultimately [the frame] provides a stage; it isolates an object, and surrounds it with a sense of importance that I think can really change the way we see the mundane or the pedestrian or the overlooked."

Wiley's most recent series of paintings is on display at Franklin Art Works in Minneapolis through March 26. The six large-as-life images were inspired by artwork he saw while travelling in Europe.

Young men pose as St. Lucy and St. Michael. Groups of three pose for "The Marriage of the Virgin" and "The Three Graces."

Gallery director Tim Peterson says Wiley's work gives these young men a sense of power and importance, while at the same time playing with ideas of sexuality and identity. He says this is the most important show he's put on since his gallery opened, and he's thrilled.

"He's kind of the epitome of what we look for in the extreme, in that we look for artists who are at that last rung where we can catch them," Peterson says. "From here on out, I'm pretty sure it's going to be major museums and bigger budget shows. These are six paintings fresh off the easel; I don't know if there's an easel big enough for them."

Peterson says Wiley's work has wide appeal, from the hundreds of art collectors in line to buy his work to the kids on the street of the Phillips neighborhood -- who wander into the gallery and see themselves reflected in the paintings.

"At some exhibitions, even here, people walk in and they have to go, 'Hmm, what is this about? I have to think about this,' or some people walk in and walk out," Peterson says. "In this show, no one walks in and walks out. You want to be immersed in these. There's so much color, there's so much pattern, there's so much potential of interpretation to these images."

On a recent afternoon, Grace Davitt stopped by the gallery after reading about the exhibit in the paper. She thinks the paintings are beautiful.

"People might see the individuals that are in the paintings on the street, and perhaps be fearful or like high society," Davitt says. "We have this image of thugs or gangsters or whatever. But when you see them with a background like this, it makes you think of paintings in a famous art museum. You notice even the clothing's artistic too, when you see it in this kind of form."

Painter Kehinde Wiley says Baroque art and popular culture aren't as different as you might think. He sees elements of the Baroque in the supercharged colors of advertising and music videos.

Wiley is now hard at work on his next series of paintings; this time he's putting young black men into military portraits from the 17th and 18th centuries.