Black men strike poses in imposing Wiley portraits 

click to enlarge “Kalkidan Mashasha II” is a portrait of an Ethiopian hip hop musician on view in “Kehinde Wiley /The World Stage: Israel” on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • “Kalkidan Mashasha II” is a portrait of an Ethiopian hip hop musician on view in “Kehinde Wiley /The World Stage: Israel” on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Artist Kehinde Wiley reinterprets the art of classic portraiture, painting young, black, urban men dressed in T-shirts while striking heroic poses akin to those found in the works of old European masters.

“Kehinde Wiley / The World Stage: Israel” is on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through May 27. It is the first major San Francisco exhibition of the black artist, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and earned his bachelor’s in fine arts at the San Francisco Art Institute. Wiley, who also holds a master’s degree from Yale, gained recognition in 2003 with portraits of young men in Harlem dressed in baggy jeans and T-shirts.

Since 2006, Wiley has traveled around the world, photographing men in China, India, Brazil and beyond. The paintings at the Jewish museum exhibition show Israeli Jews, Ethiopian Jews and Israeli Arabs — men the artist met a few years ago in malls, bars, discos and sporting venues.

“I try to use the black body in my work to counter the absence of that body in museum spaces throughout the world,” Wiley says.

Eighteen portraits are on display, some as large as 10 feet tall. Painted with photographic detail, they are vibrantly detailed works on a grand scale, with each man standing in front of ornate backgrounds inspired by designs found in Jewish papercuts and textiles.

“They’re mind-blowing, quite honestly,” says curator Karen Tsujimoto. “He’s just an amazing artist in getting luminosity and skin tones.”

Several of the paintings feature Kalkidan Mashasha, a well-known Ethiopian hip-hop musician. In one, Mashasha wears a tan military shirt in front of a yellow-orange background covered by a bright blue latticework of images.

It’s a riveting combination.

At the entrance to the exhibition is a documentary about Wiley’s trip to Israel. It’s worth a stop.

Wiley’s success allows him to work in New York and Beijing, where he is aided by studio assistants. In the gift shop, his work is on skateboards, dog tags and even beach towels.

“He clearly deserves the attention he’s getting,” Tsujimoto says. “He’s a pretty amazing artist.”

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Cathy Bowman

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