JOHN RAVENAL | Recently Acquired, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Kehinde Wiley's Willem van Heythuysen
Kehinde Wiley’s Willem van Heythuysen takes VMFA by Storm! Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but this new acquisition has made a strong impact since arriving at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in spring 2006. First off, the painting is large; more than 8 x 6 feet. Plus, it has a big gold frame—very hard to miss. But really, it’s the subject that makes visitors stop and stare. Who is this handsome, even princely, African-American posing like a 17th-century Dutch merchant—in fact, like a specific 17th-century Dutch merchant named Willem van Heythuysen, painted by Frans Hals in 1625-30 with black brocaded burghers outfit, lace ruff, and imposing sword?
Wiley’s man—a fellow from Harlem, New York—usurps not only his predecessor’s pose, but also his identity. We know him only by the name of the earlier gentleman from the other Haarlem, in The Netherlands. But clearly, he is of our time and place. His smart Sean Jean designer streetware and Timberland boots proclaim it. So does the Hip Hop attitude. It’s Hip Hop meets Old Masters, and we all come out the winner.
Wiley is fast-rising star. He grew up in Los Angeles and recalls the impression made on him by grand style painting at local museums: the Huntington Collection, the Norton Simon Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Since 2001 when he earned his MFA from Yale University, he has honed his realist style; it’s now an efficient vehicle for his hybrid sensibility. Wiley genuinely admires the spectacle of traditional portraiture. But an artist in this day and age must also dig beneath the pomp and pageantry, undermining its narratives of absolute authority.
Wiley does this by mimicry and subversion. His young black men assume the poses and attitudes of historical figures. Sometimes they take on merchants; sometimes saints. Even emperors get their comeuppance. But the critique is not one way. Yes, seeing an ordinary person of color in the mantle of European privilege and power produces a jolt, reminding us by its very incongruity of the canon’s exclusionary nature. But some of the posing cuts the other way, too; Wiley’s paintings suggest that Hip Hop has its own preoccupations with faux pageantry–what has been called a neo-baroque aesthetic of excess and display.
The men in Wiley’s paintings participate in making their own representation. Wiley discovers them on the streets of New York, where he lives, and in other cities he visits. In his studio, they comb through art history books together to select a source image. Wiley then photographs his models from below eye level, in the guise of the original figure but dressed in clothes of the model’s own choice. The finished painting imparts the dignity and status of the original subject. But not without a pithy dose of humor and critique that characterizes Wiley’s work.
Wiley’s past exhibition titles—Passing/Posing and Infinite Mobility—suggest where some of this critique might be directed, beyond the obvious biases of traditional European art. They call attention to the fantasy of belonging and the desire of some disenfranchised young black men to blend into mainstream white society by means of name-brand consumption. In this way, Wiley uses irony and self-questioning—generally absent from the original sources—to interrogate not just the Western cannon, but also the construction of black masculinity.
The backgrounds in Wiley’s painting also play an active role in this heady mix. Wiley usually substitutes a decorative pattern for whatever surroundings exist in the original work. In Willem van Heythuysen, the ornamental motifs derive from Indian fabric sources (an 18th-century embroidered export textile in VMFA’s collection makes a nice comparison).
The abstracted background flattens the image, emphasizing its artificiality as a fictional pastiche. Heightening the tension among the diverse parts, the background refuses to stay put, as tendrils begin to encircle the man’s legs.
This masterful work strengthens the museum”s growing collection of 21st-century art, which will be displayed in our new galleries. I’m pleased that its powerful imagery quickly engages our visitors, and that it supports this accessibility with substantial ideas. This “one-two punch” reflects one of my guiding principles in acquiring new art for VMFA.
John B. Ravenal
Willem van Heythuysen, 2005, Kehinde Wiley. Image courtesy the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Museum Purchase, The Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund. Photos by Katherine Wetzel.
Embroidered Yardage, second quarter 18th centure. Image courtesy the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Purchase, funds provided by The Friends of Indian Art and The Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund. Photos by Katherine Wetzel.