Wildly Popular Wiley Portrait Examines Common Man's Role in Art
The significant contemporary artist had two solo exhibitions open in February, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the Phoenix Art Museum. Wiley was born and raised in crime-ridden South Central Los Angeles, earned an MFA from Yale University, and gained fame painting African Americans in portraits inspired by the European tradition.
Jonathan Stuhlman, Curator of American Art at the Mint Museum, says Wiley’s work is “always placed prominently in the galleries due to its scale and visual power, and because it really is a painting that viewers get excited about.”
The piece is on a long-term loan from a private collector.
Large in scale, the painting is based on a Belgian stained glass work depicting France’s King Philip IV, a handsome but treacherous historical figure. Standing in the same pose is Wiley’s anonymous African American Philip, who wears a Houston Astros Jersey, and is surrounded by floating floral motifs. In the corners of its frame, sperm swim freely.
Why an anonymous substitution for an important king? Stuhlman says that, “it allows viewers to question the role of the common man in the work of art—how do things change when it’s not a king or a pope, etc., but an average person being given the royal treatment?”
This strong example of Wiley’s work captures the celebration of the hyper-masculine figure, a theme identifiable in most all of his portraiture. He shows us its ability to pervade every culture, from European renaissance kings to men on the streets of South Central LA.
In the past few years Wiley has expanded his oeuvre to include men from nations who are playing a leading role on the international stage. This includes places like China, Brazil, and India, among others. The Contemporary Jewish Museum is showing his World Stage: Israel series, which depicts both Jewish and Arabic men found through street casting in Israel. At the Phoenix Art Museum, Wiley’s Memling series is on display, eight portraits of black males based on paintings by the 15th century Flemish master Hans Memling, who broke tradition by capturing the likeness of the lowly rising merchant class instead of wealthy clergy and royalty. It is easy to see how Wiley could identify with him.
Wiley will continue his exploration of how men of color both here in the US and around the world are perceived, and, at the same time, honor them through portraiture. We are fortunate to have such a seminal work on display in our own town.