Kehinde Wiley is just one of those painters whose work I never tire of seeing/observing/studying. From a technical point of view, his style is stunning, while from the point of view of art history, there are few modern portraitists who have engaged with the history of art as deeply as Wiley. What is most important, however, is that his work emphasizes people of color dressed in everyday clothes from a large variety of geographical locations by placing them in front of, and intermingling with, a background filled with ornamental patterns and motifs taken from a large variety of textiles. This can be seen quite clearly in his work, MORTHYN BRITO IV, which is the subsequent focus of this post.
MORTHYN BRITO IV is an oil on canvas created by Wiley in 2012, and is a gorgeous painting. The subject of the work is a young-ish man of color dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie. The man stares down at the ground, deliberately avoiding our gaze. He is depicted in a powerfully realistic manner, a point which Wiley emphasizes to great effect with the popping veins and tensed muscles of the model’s proper right hand – which is a focus of the work as it rests between the model’s waist and the “picture plane” of the painting.
All of this would make the work powerful as it is, and, due to the hooded, shaved head of the model, could bring to mind a host of Baroque Spanish portraits of monks or saints. In fact, this would be almost a perfect contemporary cognate of the works of the Spanish painter Zurbarán if the background were black and the painting’s atmosphere suffused with a kind of heavy, yet invisible, sense of space, as in Zurbarán’s Saint Francis in Meditation now in the National Gallery in London.
Wiley did not choose to paint an homage to Zurbarán, however. Instead, he placed his model in front of a brilliant blue background populated by red and gold floral motifs that seem to swirl around him and capture his attention. The man seems to be contemplating the blooms of the motifs. Why this may be is an interesting question – but at the risk of creating a book where a blog post should be, I will leave that question open to your interpretation. Let me know what you think he is contemplating/why he is contemplating the floral motifs in the comments – and please do not forget to follow my blog if you like what you have read!