The young men of color in Kehinde Wiley’s paintings are always handsome, muscular and brash. And in the case of the 18 pictures in an exhibition at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, they also happen to be Israeli.
More precisely, Israeli Jews — and some Israeli Arabs — who posed for Wiley during a one-month sojourn to Israel in 2010. The paintings are part of the California-born artist’s “World Stage” series, which features portraits of men in the prime of life, standing against intricate, symbol-filled backdrops.
“The World Stage: Israel” will be on display Thursday, Feb. 14 through May 27 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Also on display will be materials loaned by the Magnes and Skirball collections that echo the designs in some of the paintings.
In addition to the works from Israel, Wiley’s World Stage series includes portraits of young black men in Senegal, India, Brazil, Sri Lanka and China.
Visitors to the CJM will stand before Wiley’s gigantic color-splashed canvases, the subjects conveying Israel’s diversity: super-realistic renderings of Ethiopian-Israeli IDF soldiers, hip-hop musicians and street prophets, looking down from on high.
Contrasting with their Nike and Sex Pistols T-shirts are backgrounds based on traditional Jewish art sources, from 19th-century paper-cuts and marriage contracts to embroidered Torah ark curtains. Some portraits are set against the dusty, ancient valleys surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City.
Each picture — some measuring as much as 91⁄2 feet from the top of the frame to bottom — is framed in wood and topped with two hand-carved Lions of Judah holding up the Tablets of the Law. On portraits of Jews, the tablets display the Ten Commandments; for the Arabs, Kehinde substitutes a Hebrew translation of the immortal words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”
Collectively, the images serve up a complex collision of past and present, much like Israel itself.
“History is always an important character,” said the 35-year-old artist of his work, in an email interview. “What I enjoy about painting is the conversation between the present and the past. In the modern streets of Israel you’ll see echoes of very old traditions and very old religious affinities.”
“We’re talking about a different take on modern Israel and its people,” said CJM curator Karen Tsujimoto. “Kehinde said he wasn’t sure what he would experience when he visited Israel. He said [his] perceptions were blown away. It was much more multicultural and diverse.”
All his works are big and bold, toying with long-held understandings of what constitutes portraiture. Whereas it was once the exclusive province of the privileged classes, Wiley wanted to bring some street to the subjects.
In short, he became the Holbein of hip-hop.
“He was trying,” Tsujimoto said, “to give black and brown men the same presence that 18th- and 17th-century royalty had.”
In Israel, Wiley picked up the tension around the constant focus on security, but he was astounded by “the graceful way people learn how to deal with it, and get on with it.”
As he got to work, he set geopolitics aside, but said he expected a measure of self-segregation between black and white Israelis, not unlike a college lunchroom. What he found was something much more nuanced.
Wiley found his subjects via what he calls “street casting,” meeting the men in nightclubs and other random settings. He would ask them whether they felt Israeli or African. The answers he got were as varied as the people.
“Nationality and religion complicated things further,” he said. “There’s a corollary between the state of Israel and the American experiment around all of these people from different parts of the globe trying to fashion an identity together and being shoved together in the same nation, sort of all being considered equally Israeli.”
It’s no surprise Wiley ended up a portrait painter. The Los Angeles native spent many hours in his youth studying the stately works at the Huntington Library near Pasadena. Pinkie and Blue Boy were akin to dear friends.
After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999, Wiley attended graduate school at Yale University, where he received his master’s degree in 2001. He also studied in Harlem, where he began to focus on painting young men from the neighborhood.
In 2006 he launched his World Stage series. He also began spending time in Beijing, where he lives for much of the year (he splits his time between China and New York).
He’ll be back in California for the opening of his CJM exhibition. Then it’s off to another far-flung place on the globe to capture raw masculinity as he finds it.
“We’re taking a moment when someone’s minding their own business, walking to work or the subway,” Wiley said of his work, “and the next thing you know, they’re in these monumental paintings, hanging in great museums throughout the world.”
“The World Stage: Israel” by Kehinde Wiley is on display Feb. 14 through May 27 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission Street, S.F. www.thecjm.org
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Kehinde Wiley with some of his images in the CJM exhibit