Since 2001, Mr. Wiley has been inserting black individuals into the generally lily-white history of Western portraiture, casting them in poses — including on rearing steeds — derived from Renaissance and old master paintings of saints, kings, emperors, prophets, military leaders, dandies and burghers. Usually these works have titles identical or similar to their sources, among them “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps,” and “Colonel Platoff on his Charger,” creating the delicious sense that Mr. Wiley’s updates are perfectly normal, which in a way they are. Still, they are conceptually provocative and should startle just about anyone, regardless of race, creed or color, even if his often thin, indifferently worked surfaces can leave something to be desired as paintings.
Consider Kehinde Wiley and the model in the studio, poring over art history books together to choose an image that will serve as the source for a new painting, in which the model will replace some long-departed exemplar of European privilege and power. The model was previously unknown to the artist, but struck him—perhaps by the strong cut of his jaw, perhaps by his leonine confidence—as a fitting candidate for the elaborate and sophisticated impersonation in which he was hired to participate.The model, who remains unnamed, is from Harlem (New York City), as was the original subject, Willem van Heythuysen, a Dutch wool merchant from Haarlem (the Netherlands), whose portrait was painted by Frans Hals in 1625. As Hals’s bravura portraits defined the Golden Age of Holland, Wiley’s painting—at once parody and tribute—gives image to our own age’s conflicted relationship to privilege, power, and the past.