LOS ANGELES — Over the past weekend, I attended a very fancy press preview (complete with chocolate croissants!) at the very fancy Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. The institution, known for its somewhat staid and largely Eurocentric art collection, was unveiling its newest commission to be added to its permanent collection: a portrait by Kehinde Wiley inspired by Thomas Gainsborough’s “A Portrait of a Young Gentleman” (familiarly known as “The Blue Boy”), the new acquisition celebrating the centennial of the Huntington’s purchase of the original painting.
Like many museums of late, the Huntington is working to become more inclusive, engaging in a long-term initiative to invite contemporary artists such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Alex Israel, and Monica Majoli to activate its storied collection, in an effort to address the lack of diversity in its canon. It is perhaps no surprise that Wiley’s oeuvre is a favorite among curators seeking to inject new relevance into their collection of European masters, as Wiley’s work (the most famous of which is his portrait of former president Barack Obama) has always functioned in a rather unidirectional philosophy of respectability politics in its objective to insert the Black body into the canon of classical figurative painting. And perhaps like many of you, I was feeling a bit skeptical sitting in a sea of mostly older, mostly white, art-world insiders ooing and aahing over the new addition to the Huntington’s portrait gallery.
Upon taking a closer look, however, I changed my mind. Hung directly across from Gainsborough’s portrait, Wiley’s painting of an anonymous Senegalese man electrifies the room with its palette of shocking purples and oranges, set off against its ornate black matte frame. The figure’s pose is the same as the original, a casual contrapposto with one hand resting on his hip and the other hanging loose to the side, fingers holding onto the edges of his hat. His stance slightly wider, his gaze more confrontational than the Blue Boy’s more demure expression. Like the reference image, Wiley’s version is rendered with extreme technical precision and virtuosity. The only differences are apparently slight: the present-day clothing of the figure, the almost-psychedelic effect of the painting’s saturated hues, its decorative pattern creeping over the foreground. And, of course, the blackness of the figure. Which is to say, the difference is earth-shattering.
By inserting a Black subject into the conventions of traditional portraiture, Wiley asks the viewer to consider who has the right to be the subject of a worthy portrait, or more broadly, a work of art. Whereas Gainsborough intended his portrait to be a tour de force demonstrating his painterly skill — clearly visible in his brushwork depicting the soft blush of the boy’s flushed cheeks, the stiffness of the silk fabric, and the extravagant piles of ruffles and lace — Wiley’s portraits are not about painting. They are about representation. And despite that it is not always enough, representation still matters. As a medium, painting — and one could argue even art— is inherently about representation, and sometimes that’s all we can ask it to do.
Kehinde Wiley’s “A Portrait of a Young Gentleman” will continue at the Thornton Portrait Gallery at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens (1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, Calif.) through January 3, 2022.
Our favorite US shows of 2021, brought to you by the writers and editors of Hyperallergic.
Naito’s Op-inspired abstractions might have been an oblique way of dealing with feelings of displacement after moving to the United States.
BIENALSUR, the International Biennial of Contemporary Art of the South, has returned to Saudi Arabia for an exhibition presenting more than 20 international artists, including Filwa Nazer, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and Tony Oursler.
Braque’s paintings speak of self-containment, of a quietly impassioned, ongoing dedication to the task at hand.
In Amber Robles-Gordon’s artwork, the borders between states matter less than the overlapping territories of self, the never-ending negotiation of identity.
Schulte seems at once focused and restless, determined and open.
The archive kicks off an initiative by the Met Museum and the Studio Museum to conserve and digitize his works, and research the context of his photographs, his singular photographic techniques, and his life.
On view in Abu Dhabi until February 5, 2022, the paintings and sculptures in Modernisms shed new light on artists like Parviz Tanavoli, Fahrelnissa Zeid, and M.F. Husain.
In 1996, Nez Perce Tribe members had to fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the Ohio History Connection to secure artifacts that were rightfully theirs.
Andrew McCarthy used a modified telescope to take over 150,000 images of the sun, combining them to create the stunningly crisp photo.
The city brought shows to life that will be talked about for years to come.