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Kehinde Wiley, "Pictures at an Exhibition," installed at Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles

Female Prophet Anne, Who Observes the Presentation of Jesus on the Temple

Investiture of Bishop Harold as Duke of Franconia
Acerbic Beauty
by Eve Wood

Kehinde Wiley, "Pictures at an Exhibition," Oct. 11-Nov. 8, 2003, at Roberts & Tilton, 6150 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, Ca. 90048

It was Picasso who said "to break the rules, you must first know them by heart." How true this is, and yet how sad that many of today's hot young painters do not ascribe to this dictum, opting instead for a safe and static vision. The New York painter Kehinde Wiley is one young artist who has not only embraced this old-school wisdom, but has pushed its inherent meaning out into a larger and more brutal sort of compassion. Were Picasso to stand in front of Wiley's work, the never-ending pertinence of his statement might shift dramatically in the wake of these images.

Wiley draws liberally from the high renaissance of Western painting, though peppered with art historical references and embedded with the fierceness of hip-hop culture. Wiley's work is monumental, almost rupturing the picture plane, using traditional religious gestures often found in chapel paintings where the central figure gazes upward at the sky, one hand raised in prayer or resignation upon being "struck" by the Lord's omniscient grace.

In Female Prophet Anne, Samuel's Mother, a young black man wearing a bright orange Astro shirt with corn rows in his hair, and set onto a blue background, takes on, with wit and intelligence, our revered and often stodgy Western Canon, the painting rife with images of nature, hummingbirds and Bird of Paradise, as the young man stands indulged in the phenomenon of his own grace.

Wiley is also drawing a parallel between the garish and all-too-flashy attire and "display of material consumption" evident in hip-hop culture and the same baroque sensibilities that permeated European Renaissance painting. Colors seemingly converge on themselves in a dystopia of nearly mythic vine-like shapes.

In Prophet Maria, the figure stands, seemingly struck by some God, though which God that might be is unclear, surrounded on all sides by swimming sperm. The frame is gold and outrageous and the expression on the man's face betrays a strange balance between expectation and riches? Perhaps.

EVE WOOD is the author of the book of poetry, Love's Funeral (Cherry Grove Collections, University of Cincinnati).