Kehinde Wiley: Memling represents a new series of work by the young American painter. These eight portraits take their poses and contexts from the works by the legendary 15th century Flemish master Hans Memling but Wiley has substituted contemporary sitters for the historical figures.
At a time when portraits were still rare, Memling was among the first to paint individuals who were not royalty or members of the clergy. Memling’s portraits of increasingly influential powerful merchant class of his day represent a quiet revolution within Flemish society. The forms of Memling’s painting were just as surprising. He placed his sitters outdoors beneath sunny skies and within placid verdant landscapes, occasionally framed by architectural details such as colored marble columns. These naturalistic setting granted his sitters a veracity and life not found with the single colour backgrounds previously used for individual portraiture. Memling’s use of nature and evocation of three dimensional space was high influential in both the Netherlands and Italy.
Wiley references Memling’s painting as part of his larger project to explore the place of the individual within society by reevaluating questions of how young men of colour are seen and defined. Presented in elaborate frames, Kehinde’s portraits place his modern sitters at the heart of culture and history. Despite their intimate size, Wiley’s portraits loose none of their impact and power. The smaller scale demands close inspection and personal engagement. The active gaze of his sitters—a departure from Memling’s work—leads the viewer to think more carefully about the individual lives and experience behind the individuals depicted in the images.
Over the last decade, Kehinde Wiley has risen to international prominence with his large-scale heroic portraits that address the cultural perception and social status of young men of colour within contemporary culture. Working with important images from art history that have defined our collective way of seeing the powerful, wealthy and privileged, his paintings blur the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation. His larger-than-life figures command a respect that is often in stark contrast with his sitter’s disenfranchised and anonymous backgrounds. Kehinde’s career has been built on this clash of cultures that seeks to challenge the way we perceive and define others.
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Conversations with Kehinde Wiley
February 20, 2013 at 7pm
Whiteman Hall, Phoenix Art Museum
Part of the Contemporary Forum Lectures Series which is sponsored by Fennemore Craig, P.C.
Left: Kehinde Wiley (American, b. 1977), After Memling Portrait of Saint Benedict, 2013. Oil on wood panel, housed in artist designed, hand-fabricated frame with 22k gold leaf. Gilding. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California. Right: Kehinde Wiley (American, b. 1977), After Memling’s Portrait of Maarten van Nieuwenhove, 2013. Oil on wood panel, housed in artist designed, hand-fabricated frame with 22k gold leaf. Gilding. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.