Kehinde Wiley (American, b. 1977). Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005. Oil on canvas. Collection of Andrew Cohen.

Kehinde Wiley, DOWN to the Heroic and Grand

Deitch Projects
18 Wooster Street
New York
Kehinde Wiley

November 1-December 20, 2008

DOWN, an exhibition of seven heroically scaled paintings by Kehinde Wiley was initially inspired by Holbein's painting The Dead Christ in the Tomb as well as historical paintings and sculptures of fallen warriors and figures in repose. Wiley has created an unsettling series of prone bodies — some a product of ravages of war, some contorted in erotic revelry while others embody the majesty and severity of entombed saints.

Epic in nature, DOWN, is Wiley's most ambitious series to date. These figurative paintings, which extend up to 25 feet in length, have grandeur and gravity seldom seen in contemporary art.

In DOWN, the poses are drawn from works of fallen subjects by Holbein, Mantegna, Houdon, Maderno, Restout, and Clesinger, Wiley reconceptualizes classical pictorial forms to create a contemporary version of monumental portraiture. The works resound with violence, pain, and death, as well as sexual ecstasy. They portray a sense of heroism in the face of death, incorporating a scale that pushes beyond the mere corporeal and into a level of legend and heroicism.

Described by Wiley, DOWN is "an answer to the negative views of young Black men in American society. It recognizes an idiom that can be seen from a distance as a negative form transformed into something more fabulous and joyful. DOWN is a recognition of a type of artistic malaise that exists in current dialogue in art where joy is perceived as suspect and where absolute beauty is regarded with disdain. DOWN is at once an embrace of the visceral and the very physical embodiment of its denial."

The subjects of the paintings are African-American men in their late teens and 20s found in Brooklyn. Twin brothers Dee and Ricky Jackson who portrayed as Lord Digby and Lord Russell in a previous series of paintings, chose the models for DOWN allowing Wiley to expand his practice by having the models not only participate as subjects, but also in the exchange that goes with casting, creating a self-directed system.

DOWN is Kehinde Wiley's third solo exhibition at Deitch Projects. Wiley's World Stage: Africa, Lagos-Dakar has been on view from July through October 26 at Studio Museum in Harlem. The exhibition travels to ArtPace in San Antonio in January.


Kehinde Wiley (born in Los Angeles, California in 1977) is known for his paintings of contemporary urban African American men in poses taken from the annals of art history. His painting style has been compared to that of such traditional portraitists as Reynolds, Gainsborough, Titian and Ingres. The Columbus Museum of Art, which hosted an exhibition of his work in 2007, describes his work with the following: "Kehinde Wiley has gained recent acclaim for his heroic portraits which address the image and status of young African-American men in contemporary culture."

Wiley’s paintings often blur the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation. Rendered in a realistic mode –– while making references to specific old master paintings –– Wiley creates a fusion of period styles, ranging from French rococo, Islamic architecture and West African textile design to urban hip-hop and the "Sea Foam Green" of a Martha Stewart Interiors color swatch. Wiley’s slightly larger than life size figures are depicted in a heroic manner, as their poses connote power and spiritual awakening. Wiley’s portrayal of masculinity is filtered through these poses of power and spirituality.

His portraits are based on photographs of young men who Wiley sees on the street, begun last year with men mostly from Harlem’s 125th Street, the series now includes models from the South Central neighborhood where he was born. Dressed in street clothes, they are asked to assume poses from the paintings of Renaissance masters, such as Titian and Tiepolo. Wiley also embraces French rococo ornamentation; his references to this style compliment his embrace of hip–hop culture. Similarly, the poses of his figures appear to derive as much from contemporary hip–hop culture as from Renaissance paintings.

The artist describes his approach as "interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit." Wiley’s figurative paintings "quote historical sources and position young black men within that field of power.” In this manner, Wiley’s paintings fuse history and style in a unique and contemporary manner.

Kehinde Wiley’s works reference paintings by Titian and Tiepolo, but he also draws from other styles ranging from the French Rococo to contemporary urban street. Kehinde Wiley’s exhibition Infinite Mobility recently appeared at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

His work currently resides in National Portrait Gallery (United States) as part of the Recognize exhibit.


Kehinde Wiley (American, b. 1977), LL Cool J, Oil on canvas, 2005, © Kehinde Wiley.