‘Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic’ opens Saturday at VMFA

6/10/2016, 7 a.m.
Special to the Free Press Asked what “A New Republic” means, visual artist Kehinde Wiley replies rapid-fire. “It’s a space-clearing ...
These gorgeous stained glass windows are a highlight of the exhibit. The works are, from “Saint Adelaide,” “Saint Remi” and “Saint Amelie.” Photo by Sandra Sellars

By Toni Wynn

Special to the Free Press

Asked what “A New Republic” means, visual artist Kehinde Wiley replies rapid-fire.

“It’s a space-clearing gesture.”

As the 20th century dawned, artists created modernism as a place where they could “create zones of new conversations,” he explained, throwing off the constraints of the old and too familiar.

Mr. Wiley’s “new space of undiscovered country” becomes a new republic of the 21st century.

Who populates this republic?

We all can if we feel the urgency of conversations about black bodies and how they represent and are represented in society.

When Mr. Wiley speaks of “a broader need to redefine ways bodies are coded,” his artwork speaks louder than words.

Nearly 60 portraits in this mid-career retrospective by Mr. Wiley, 38, will be on view beginning Saturday at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

The exhibit, “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic,” was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and has toured the country and most recently drawn acclaim at the Seattle Art Museum. The next stop, Richmond’s VMFA, is halfway through the tour.

Sarah Eckhardt, associate curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at VMFA, organized the local exhibit, which runs through Sept. 5.

“When you see the paintings together, you see the scope of his vision, which is big. He’s clearly putting African-American men — and now women and people of color from all over the world — into the center of the composition. That, to me, forms a new republic,” Dr. Eckhardt said.

In 2006, under the direction of former senior curator John Ravenal, the VMFA purchased Mr. Wiley’s “Willem van Heythuysen,” a 96” x 72” portrait, for the museum. “Our painting is from the time when he was just establishing himself,” Dr. Eckhardt said.

The exhibit opens with the VMFA’s painting, allowing visitors to see how the portrait fits into the whole of Mr. Wiley’s work. Given the majesty of the piece, it’s not a heavy lift to appreciate it.

But the artistic reference — the backstory — is well worth considering. In 1625, Dutch artist Frans Hals painted “Willem van Heythuysen posing with a sword.” Nearly 400 years later, Wiley posed a young African-American man similarly, painted his portrait on a huge canvas and used van Heythuysen’s name for the work.

A “space-clearing gesture,” indeed.

Of Mr. Wiley, Richmond native Juliette Harris, noted former editor of the International Review of African American Art published at Hampton University, said, “His works are stunning — the unexpected combination of figures from the ’hood with the opulent Renaissance-era backgrounds. He’s taking these figures that are considered commonplace and heroically elevating them in such an unstinting way of all-out glorification.

“They’re huge, jaw-dropping, so intricately wrought,” she said. “The rendering is so beautiful. Those skin tones! The execution is just very difficult and the works are epic, heroic.”

Mr. Wiley has taken heat for the actual execution of his paintings. He employs assistants who work in his studios, taking direction from the artist to help create the portraits’ ornate backgrounds.