Kehinde Wiley’s Cross-Cultural Pageant

Kehinde Wiley, “Leviathan Zodiac (The World Stage: Israel),” 2011, oil and gold enamel on canvas. Private Collection.  Courtesy Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California..           Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

Kehinde Wiley, “Leviathan Zodiac (The World Stage: Israel),” 2011, oil and gold enamel on canvas. Private Collection. Courtesy Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

Kehinde Wiley uses deliberately flamboyant colors. Loud as hip-hop music and just as assertive are the grand claims Wiley makes for the subjects he paints: Young men of, yes, color stand out among the traditional, time-muted tints of the ancient and holy fabrics that frame them in the exhibition The World Stage: Israel at The Jewish Museum.

Wiley picked his models, Ethiopian- and native-born Jews as well as Arabs, from dance clubs, arcades and street fairs in Israel. He looked for attitude that shows “how one puts oneself gracefully in the world.” This is not hipster exoticism; their postures recall the imperiousness of Old World doges and potentates. Outside the museum realm, these poses would be called “swagger.” The exhibition’s name reflects Wiley’s awareness that the eyes of the world watch the underclass, whose members project exploitable, energized music and original personal style. He places their class struggle in flamboyant settings—in this case Torah ark curtains, wall hangings and bedcovers—that integrate alienated cultures. T-shirted torsos are wrapped in ornamental patterns—vines, serifs, animal figures—that grasp and cling like psychedelic tendrils. For Wiley, these young men act as iconic ambassadors of desire.

Politicizing the ripeness of youth, Wiley demonstrates how hip-hop music and fashion, linked to foundational cultures that continually struggle for worldwide respect, have captivated the global imagination. Previous shows in Wiley’s World Stage series featured brash young men from China, Africa, Brazil and India/Sri Lanka. It’s an eye-catching brotherhood similar to the effrontery of Benneton and Desigual billboards— and these portraits are ads, too. They are products that endow the working class with the bright vibrancy of fancily dressed comic-book heroes. They are meant to pop.

The Los Angeles-born Wiley was an impressionable 11-year-old when the L.A. rap group N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton, the album with the notorious single “Fuck tha Police.” It must have been strangely exciting to grow up on the outskirts of apartheid Hollywood, to see young black kids challenge police authority and rival a legendary cultural institution with gangsta rap, its own impudent music culture soon to claim the world.

Strange infatuation radiates from the 14 portraits in The World Stage: Israel. Hip-hop’s original rebelliousness, by now reduced to commercialization, becomes part of these paintings’ mildly subversive undercurrent. Wiley’s portraiture combines fashionable impudence with assimilation—an improvement from those black-and-white VIBE magazine mugshot covers that stereotyped youths of color as criminal, erotic threats. Between the street and his studio, Wiley finds space to captivate and tease the social status of the Other, be it the host country’s quizzical scrutiny or the second-class citizen’s preening. The portraits must be especially striking in the Middle East. The pastel and gold backdrops with contrasting electric, phosphorescent stylings create a demilitarized zone for pop contemplation.

Wiley says he means to “marry tradition with these painfully young and present models.” He needn’t pity them; the combination of modern and ancient contexts catches the beginnings of cultural change. His young men with liquid eyes stare back at you not to accuse, but so that you’ll see them in your dreams.

Kehinde Wiley / The World Stage: Israel
Through July 29, The Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave., 212-423-3200,

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