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The Contemporary Jewish Museum Shows Kehinde Wiley's Latest Series of Grand Portraiture

Benediter Brkou (The World Stage: Israel); Kehinde Wiley

Benediter Brkou (The World Stage: Israel), 2011; Oil and gold and silver enamel on canvas; Collection of Danny First, Los Angeles; Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California

Kehinde Wiley's latest batch of epic portraits, now at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, ostensibly gives exposure to Israel's lesser-represented brown-skinned population–Ethiopian Jews, Rastafarians, Arabs and others of non-European descent. They're striking, but something about them feels amiss.

For the past decade or so, Wiley, who is based in New York City, has been depicting brown-skinned subjects in a manner historically reserved for socially dominant groups: Ostentatious, renaissance-style portraiture. He began in Harlem, immortalizing hip hop royalty in his ornate, larger-than-life canvases. From there, Wiley moved on to what he has been calling "The World Stage," traveling the globe in search of such minority subjects. The Renaissance is long past, Wiley reasons, but people of African descent are still significantly underrepresented in the world of images, fine art in particular. "The World Stage" is Wiley's challenge to this.

  Israel), 2011 Oil and gold enamel on canvas Collection of Blake Byrne, Los Angeles; Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California

His Israeli subjects are beautiful: Bronzed, doe-eyed, full-lipped men (Kehinde, a gay man, keeps his focus on male subjects who he finds to exude an "alpha-male presence"). Par for the Renaissance course, Wiley heavily idealizes his subjects, eliminating blemishes to a statuesque effect. The artist (or rather his studio assistants in New York and Beijing, who take care of the more mechanical aspects of the works) also wraps his subjects in colorful, ornate patterns sourced from their local culture – in this case motifs found on Torah covers, prayer shawls, traditional marriage contracts, and the like – and places them in equally grandiose frames. 

Wiley thus merges two clearly real but seemingly incompatible feelings of reverence – one for his subjects and their cultures, the other for the euro-centric art historical tradition. What results is a joke that any art history nerd can appreciate, but whom is the joke on? Wiley has made a killing off these heavy-handed statements, which do objectify their subjects. They're objectified in the name of grand exposure on the art world's stage, but objectified nonetheless, left with no air for individual personalities or experiences to breathe. Walking through this exhibition feels like walking through a collection of oversized head-shots or trading cards: Completely vanilla. 

A back-handedly optimistic 2003 assessment of Wiley's work by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith comes to mind: "Mr. Wiley is only now beginning to make paintings that don't feel mostly like campy, gaudy shams." If you ask me, they still do. 

The World Stage: Israel runs through May 27 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission Street