Kehinde Wiley’s “Vocabulary of Dignity”

On this sunny, 55-degree Midwestern winter day, I made my way to luxuriate in Kehinde Wiley’s 11-painting exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum. I have followed Wiley’s work since 2010, when I first encountered one of his paintings in Louisville, Kentucky at 21c Museum Hotel. Morpheus, an oil and enamel painting in grand classical style, recasts the God of Dreams as a young, beautiful black man in streetware reclining in a position similar to the French neoclassicist sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon’s rendering of the Greek deity in 1777.

Many know Wiley as the first black man to paint America’s first black President, a painting I was fortunate to see at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in April. In the painting, President Barack Obama sits in candid grace, tieless, hands over his knees, surrounded by verdant flora from Indonesia, Hawaii, Chicago, and Kenya. Seeing Wiley’s masterpiece was both an ecstatic and slightly claustrophobic experience. Crowds swarmed all over the gallery floor to see Wiley’s Obama and Amy Sherald’s stunning portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama. Some viewers stood waiting patiently in the line monitored by docents, while others, like me, angled over the barrier to take a quick pic with a confused toddler in tow.

The record number of visitors who came to see the newest presidential portraits was as if Americans skipped every other exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery just to see the art and the people who meant the most to them.

The populist power of Wiley’s work, crowds notwithstanding, is exhilarating. Wiley captures black masculinity (and, in more frequent instances these days, femininity) in a way that confronts the historical erasure of people of color in classical art and then recasts his subjects in reclaimed glory. His work is lush and vibrant, realistic yet richly layered with rococo patterns and floral backgrounds that embed significance to both the sitter of the portrait and to the time period and the work that influences Wiley’s rendition. “We have to recognize that while Madonna and Child are something that’s enduring,” he said in his artist talk on the opening night of his exhibit “Kehinde Wiley: St. Louis,” “the loss of a child is something that is enduring as well. These are things we have seen in art history and memorial.” While Wiley is referencing one of his stained-glass creations, one cannot help but think of Lezley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., Michael Brown’s parents.

Images of President Obama, LL Cool J, and Michael Jackson notwithstanding, Wiley typically crafts images “around people we don’t necessarily pay attention to every day, people who aren’t famous or powerful.” Wiley’s 2017 visit to north St. Louis and Ferguson to recruit models to star in his paintings says a lot about our city, our collective pride, our region’s on-going problems with racism, and the need to support and nurture artists who flip the script on who is immortalized in the art world, and who is not.

Now, mere days before Christmas at the Saint Louis Art Museum, school children sit cross-legged before sumptuous paintings of a woman and a man assuming the pose of King Charles I of England as a docent quizzes them about what is similar and different about these two portraits. Why do they think the artist uses flowers and patterns in the background of his subjects?  How are the subjects clothed and posed, and to what effect? The students, maybe third or fourth graders, discuss color, composition, and brushstokes in a way many adults do not. As they debate whether the people are coming out of the background and into the foreground, I think about something else Wiley has said is crucial to understanding his work:

“The trouble is that when I was going to those museums [as a child in Los Angeles], I was looking at images of landed gentry and amazing powdered wigs, and pearls and lap dogs. And, you know, there is no way to get in. It felt as though there was a type of remove. And, that sense of alienation that I felt in those paintings, or that sense of alienation that I had in that moment, was easily overcome by my passion for painting. Just the idea that I could somehow get close to making marks like that. So, I just tried. I just kept on pushing myself to advance in that direction.”

And advance he does. Wiley has a knack for making the art world, school children, diverse communities around the globe, and people who sometimes wonder if contemporary art is still relevant to realize art is especially for us.