On October 8, 2004, the first museum exhibition of the critically acclaimed painter Kehinde Wiley, whose portraits of African American men combine elements of hip-hop culture with an Old Master’s influence, was presented in Infinite Mobility: Paintings by Kehinde Wiley, at the Brooklyn Museum.
The Museum added to its permanent collection with the purchase of Wiley’s Passing/Posing, a cycle of four large-scale oil paintings surrounding a 25 x 10 foot ceiling painting of seemingly tumbling breakdancers; the life-size heroic figures mingle fantasy and realism.
The works in Infinite Mobility: Paintings by Kehinde Wiley incorporate a range of art historical and vernacular styles, from French rococo to today’s urban street. Wiley collapses history and style into a unique contemporary vision. He describes his approach as “interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit.” He makes figurative paintings that “quote historical sources and position young black men within that field [of power].”
The vividly colorful paintings, often with ornate gilded frames, depict young black men—in sweatshirts, sports jerseys, or baseball caps turned backward—posed in a manner reminiscent of Renaissance artists such as Tiepolo or Titian, and adorned with baroque or rococo decorative patterns.
“I use French rococo influences, with its garishness and vulgarity, to complement the flashy attire and “display of material consumption” evident in hip-hop culture, which mirror the same baroque sensibilities that permeated European Renaissance painting,” said Wiley.
Using models recruited from the Harlem neighborhood where he worked, Wiley’s portraits examine the aestheticizing of masculinity and the use of supercharged color, iconography, and ornamentation to reflect the garishness of hip-hop culture and capitalism. By applying the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, history, wealth, power, and prestige to subject matter drawn from the urban fabric in which he is embedded, Wiley presents these young men as both heroic and pathetic, autonomous and manipulated.