Kehinde Wiley is seriously jet-lagged. Back in New York after several months in Beijing, China—he splits his time between the two cities, and has a studio in each—he sits in the living room of his lavishly decorated, high-ceilinged apartment in an unassuming Soho building drinking coffee. Known for his large-scale works depicting young men of color taking on poses characteristic of Renaissance portraits of nobility, he becomes instantly animated while discussing his new exhibit, “The World Stage: Israel,” which opens Friday at the Jewish Museum.
I had met Kehinde five months earlier at a fundraiser for Canteen magazine held in his honor at the home of Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold Lehman. The current crown jewel of the museum director’s extensive contemporary art collection is one of Wiley’s trademark massive portraits, featuring a black man in jeans and sneakers holding a scepter and sitting atop a majestic white horse, set against a deep red background with gold fleurs-de-lis. Wiley, clad in a white three-piece suit of a fabric patterned with one of his own designs, praised Canteen’s writing program in Harlem, which offers teenagers the opportunity to discover themselves through art. He recalled the art classes he took growing up in South Central Los Angeles. (The 35-year-old’s father is Nigerian and mother is African-American.) His work since then has dealt primarily with notions of masculinity, power, and identity on a grand scale.
“The World Stage: Israel” is the fifth location-based project of Wiley’s World Stage series, which had him in China, India & Sri Lanka, Lagos & Dakar, and Brazil. The resulting portraits all feature images of men on the periphery of society in poses of dignified power. Nowhere is Israel’s social tension as artfully and breathtakingly on view as in Wiley’s bright, vivid paintings, which show men—Ethiopian Jews, Arab-Israelis, and Jews born in Israel—in all their hyphenated glory and before backgrounds adorned with intricate designs inspired by traditional Jewish tapestries and paper-cuttings.
If the subjects of the portraits look like they just strolled off the beach in Tel Aviv, it’s because they probably did. Wiley found his models during a monthlong visit to Israel in 2010, where he mined the vibrant nightlife of Tel Aviv and sourced decorative patterns in Jerusalem. “A lot of what I want to do is capture a type of radical contingency within all of these moving parts,” Wiley told me. “People walking down streets minding their own business, and boom, that moment becomes the epic painting.”
Once he established the right relationships, bars and nightclubs became a good source of potential young subjects, though Wiley had to pull them aside for quick photographs in a makeshift studio set up in some back room, a departure from his usual thorough process. “It became a different way of documenting a show,” he said. “Something I’ve never done before.”
It was in Tel Aviv that Wiley met Kalkidan Mashasha, an Ethiopian-Israeli hip-hop artist whose extensive crew of friends happily showed up for a paid photo shoot. “I think they were just getting on the phone and calling more guys and saying, ‘Oh this is cool, there’s this crazy American paying us money to like take our picture,’ ” Wiley said, providing a spot-on glimpse into the strength of the Israeli word-of-mouth culture. In the finished portrait, Kalkidan, who is scheduled to perform tonight at the Jewish Museum exhibit’s opening, wears a khaki military shirt with the Ethiopian flag and gazes solemnly out from his wooden frame.
Unlike Wiley’s earlier work, the models in the “World Series: Israel” portraits are posed sparely, and all but one make direct eye contact with the viewer. It wasn’t until he began talks about a possible exhibition, however, that Wiley grasped the extent of the connection between his work and the Jewish Museum. “I realized that some of the very same pieces that I had been using from books as reference points were actually there and in the museum’s permanent collection,” he said.
One of the paintings, Alios Itzhak, which the museum acquired, is displayed near the papercut upon which its background is based. (It is also being reproduced as a 20-by-35-foot hand-painted mural in Soho to promote the show.) Curator Karen Levitov said, “When you see the comparison of the original [papercut] to the painting, he’s pretty faithful to the decorative motifs, but then he keys up the color a lot and plays with extending the vines or the foliage.” Wiley selected a series of Judaica from the museum’s collection, including a Torah ark curtain from the Ottoman Empire, a wall hanging from Uzbekistan, and a marriage contract from Italy on cut-out parchment. These are exhibited on tables adjacent to the paintings, and their protective glass casings reflect Wiley’s bright colors.
The dark green walls and dark wood paneling of the gallery space create an almost gothic environment in which Wiley’s colorful, decorative portraits appear even more dramatic. “I didn’t want any sort of confusion surrounding mislabeling one community for the other,” he said in reference to his subjects’ religious backgrounds. “There’s this balancing act that occurs when trying to approach identity in Israel as well. It’s so charged. And as opposed to running away from it, I did decide to do some playful things with it.” Some of that playfulness comes through in the hand-carved wooden frames Wiley has chosen: for Jewish subjects, the Lion of Judah, the Ten Commandments, and the hands of the Kohen; for Arab-Israelis, the Lion of Judah with the famous Rodney King quote, “Can we all get along?” in Hebrew. These references, while small in scale compared to the large paintings, are hardly subtle. Levitov noted that Wiley’s interest is in countries with “very complex social and political situations.” She added, “He’s not just making beautiful pictures.”
Wiley was especially interested in depicting Ethiopian Jews, many of whom were born in Africa and spoke with him about their identity as Israelis and Africans. “There’s also a very strong corollary between the state of Israel and the American experiment around all of these people from different parts of the globe trying to fashion an identity together and being shoved together in the same nation, sort of all being considered equally Israeli,” Wiley explained. “It doesn’t always make for an easy fit, and I think that’s one of the things that resonates, really, with me.”