Kehinde Wiley became an art-world star for his portraits that depicted African-American men instead of aristocrats and saints in Old Masters-style paintings. Now he’s getting a retrospective at Seattle Art Museum.

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Kehinde Wiley discusses becoming an artist, learning how to paint black skin and representing people of color in a stereo-typically white institution. (Ken Lambert & Katie G. Cotterill / The Seattle Times)

With a brush stroke, Kehinde Wiley toppled Napoleon.

His 2005 painting “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps,” is 9-feet-tall, 9-feet-wide, set in a gilded frame and features an African-American man astride a white horse. In place of tights and formal military wear, the subject is wearing his own clothes: army fatigues, a bandana and Timberland boots.

Wiley’s guiding concept is a seemingly simple one — he substitutes African-American men from the streets of Harlem or Brooklyn in the place of aristocrats in Old Masters-style paintings. In the process, he turns an art-world tradition of depicting race, power and prestige on its head.

“Napoleon” was part of a 2005 show called “Rumors of War” that helped make Wiley a star. Now 38 years old, he’s already the subject of a career retrospective. “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” opens at Seattle Art Museum this week (Thursday, Feb. 11), running through May 11. Featuring 60 works, the exhibition comes from the Brooklyn Museum.

“There’s this really exciting ability to talk about the presence of black and brown young people in the 21st century in painting,” Wiley said from his New York studio. “Society is changing, and there’s all these subtle and major shifts in the way that we think about race that are occurring both here and abroad. How does my work respond to that? How can painting ever respond to that? It’s an exciting time to be an artist.”

Wiley’s “Arms of Nicolas Ruterius, Bishop of Arras” swaps a French bishop’s 16th-century heraldry for a young man wearing an “8” on his vest.
Wiley’s “Arms of Nicolas Ruterius, Bishop of Arras” swaps a French bishop’s 16th-century heraldry for a young man wearing an “8” on his vest.

It’s also an exciting time to be Wiley, who’s achieved celebrity in the art world and beyond — the TV show “Empire” has featured his work, Michael Jackson commissioned a piece before he died and his famous collectors include Neil Patrick Harris, Elton John and Venus Williams. “Kehinde Wiley is a history painter, one of the best we have,” critic Holland Cotter wrote in a New York Times review of the 2005 show. “By this I mean that he creates history as much as tells it.”

But Wiley also has his share of critics: Three years later, another New York Times writer described those paintings as “campy, gaudy shams.” And some art critics — such as Ben Davis and Chloe Wyma — charge that in the age of Black Lives Matter, Wiley doesn’t push social justice themes far enough.

“Good,” responded Bennett Roberts, co-owner of Roberts & Tilton, a Culver City, Calif.-based gallery that represents Wiley. “In the history of art, a unanimously loved artist is never, in the long run, of any significance. They are always in the basements of museums.”

Wiley grew up in South Central Los Angeles and fell in love with formal British portraiture during his visits to the galleries of the nearby Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. “I really loved the pomp and circumstance,” he said. “Perhaps there was some sort of burgeoning queer aesthetic. It was so fabulous — the lap dogs and the pearls … that sense of drag.”

“I was a total weirdo,” he added, laughing. “My interests weren’t popular. The way I dressed wasn’t popular. I think if I met me today, I would be really annoyed.”

After graduating from Yale in 2001, he became an artist-in-residence at Harlem’s Studio Museum, where his paintings of black men with swirling, surrealist Afros caught the notice of gallerists such as Roberts and Jeffrey Deitch. But when he shifted his focus to draw from the Old Masters and started “street casting” subjects for his portraiture, his career caught fire.

“I love the fact that African Americans are represented in situations where only white people previously were recognized,” said Los Angeles art collector Blake Byrne, who owns several Wiley pieces.

For his 2008 show “Down,” Wiley portrayed men in supine poses, oftentimes putting them in the place of women in classic works, their languid, sensual bodies contrasting machismo with feminine eroticism.

“There’s a freedom to explore issues of gender and race and class in ways that had to be done covertly in a lot of works,” Wiley said. “If you look at some of those highly homoeroticized Caravaggio paintings, or if you look at elements of Michelangelo’s investigation of femininity through the male figure, all of these things are in there. They are just not able to come out and say it as such … That’s a cultural evolution, and I’m benefiting from that.”

For his 2013 “Anthony of Padua,” Wiley asked a young New York man wearing a Black Panther patch to match the pose in a stained-glass window from a Parisian church.
For his 2013 “Anthony of Padua,” Wiley asked a young New York man wearing a Black Panther patch to match the pose in a stained-glass window from a Parisian church.

Starting in 2007, Wiley began widening his scope, painting men from Israel, India, China, Africa and Jamaica for his World Stage series. And in 2012, he widened his scope further, painting women in Givenchy couture for his series “An Economy of Grace.”

Street casting women proved to be particularly challenging. He was met with hostility, even with a PBS camera crew and female assistants in tow.

“Oh God, it was horrible,” he said. “I felt like I was doing something wrong. There’s this sexualized thing that happens in heteronormative transactions, where it’s just assumed that I’m hunting … For so long, I’ve been cluelessly just walking around having it very easy, approaching guys on the street.”

Though the paintings revisit a centuries-old art form, Wiley’s methods are contemporary: A photographer shoots thousands of images, which are color-corrected and manipulated, and assistants help with the intricate floral backgrounds. He likens his studio system to Gainsborough, Rubens and Warhol.

“The portrait, in a very simple way, reveals all the myriad ways of telling someone’s personal story,” Wiley said.

“When you look at one of my paintings, it might be easy to dismiss it as being a simple portrait of a young black kid,” he explained. “But if you slow down and notice all of those small minutiae, those little nuanced things that tell you something about who they are and how they arrived at that moment of time, how they feel about me, how they choose to pose their body, how they choose to decorate themselves. All the histories that are being overlapped … There’s a potency there that can’t be arrived at in a landscape.”