Kehinde Wiley at the STL Art Museum

Kehinde Wiley is one of just a few modern painters who register in American popular culture from New York to St. Louis and beyond. His new show is on display at the St. Louis Art Museum through Feb. 10.

Earlier this year, Wiley was selected by President Obama to paint his official presidential portrait, making him the first African American artist to receive the honor. Wiley was born in Los Angeles, but considers himself New York-based. He is widely known for making large-scale oil paintings of contemporary African American subjects in poses which re-envision museum masterworks.

The artist’s latest effort – on display now with “Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis” – includes St. Louis residents painted in settings which reference famous works by American, Dutch, Italian, German and Spanish portrait painters from as far back as the 16th century. 

The themes at play include, strikingly, cosmopolitanism, modern and historical. And of course questions of representation; the representation of minority populations in art, as well as the place of modern and contemporary art in the lives of minority populations in urban environments. Wiley has dramatically improved the landscape on both counts.

Wiley has painted real St. Louisans in their own clothes on an oversized scale that is almost imposing. If not imposing, the size of the works at least show off Wiley’s skill with a brush. Up close, the color choices and technicality rival the clever juxtaposition of subject and style.      

The exhibit, which opened Oct. 19, was overseen by Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art at SLAM.

Wiley’s St. Louis show is a rare chance for many area residents to view world-class, topical artworks informed by real life. Our neighbors are featured, like royalty or valued patrons, as subject matter fit for a beautiful contemporary exhibit at a major museum. Entrance is free. Don’t forget to check out the mummies downstairs. 

James Walling

James Walling is a writer with over 10 years experience managing and editing newspapers in the Pacific Northwest, Prague (CZ), Central Texas, and Northeast Montana. He lives in the O'Fallon Park neighborhood in north St. Louis.

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