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Art Review

Scenic: Kehinde Wiley at Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Kehinde Wiley Is Twisting Old Paradigms

by Joey Orr

This California native and New York-based painter has been painting in the style of the Old Masters for some time now. Wiley’s sense of design, scale and beaux-arts framing create a bold sense of imagination and authority, as well as creating new positions of subjectivity and agency for the representation of the African American male. According to the gallery, this specific body of work references paintings by German Renaissance artist Hans Holbein the Younger, work that Wiley saw on display at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland. Meanwhile the decorative backgrounds reference upper class French scenic wallpaper from the 1800s. There are many exciting new developments in his work to discover in this exhibit.

The last time I encountered Wiley’s painting was in the 2005 exhibit Maximum Flavor at the Gallery of the now defunct Atlanta College of Art. At that time, the subject matter and concept was every bit as interesting, while the work’s execution left something to be desired. Maybe this was older work, or maybe Wiley has been honing his artistic skills, but the work at Rhona Hoffman is seamless and meticulously executed.

For artists or curators who thought portraits could no longer be interesting, here’s a great chance to see a young, contemporary artist twisting an old paradigm just enough to open up new spaces for creative practice and representation. While some of the portraits in the gallery’s street-level lobby entrance are clean and simple, their style and matting make subtle suggestions about the more dramatic framing of Wiley’s subjects encountered in the gallery’s main space.

There are several works that deserve close attention, but it’s especially important to mention St. Andrew. This work takes up Wiley’s decorative sperm-like designs that twist throughout the background’s intricate lacing. Seen in previous works, Rhona Hoffman Gallery explains their presence as alluding to power and masculinity, despite the fact that the sperm is weak and miniscule. In any case, it seems Wiley has hit his stride in developing a cohesive body of work that explores and pressures notions of identity and sexuality.

Kehinde Wiley: Scenic, is on display at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery through October 14th