Leisure Features

Dorothy About Town: 12.5.18

A special exhibit on display through February 10 at the Saint Louis Art Museum has close ties to the local community. Artist Kehinde Wiley, who created the official portrait of President Barack Obama, came here to paint St. Louisans in his signature ‘street casting’ style. The approach is a remarkable reversal of the staid portraits in classical Western European art, and the 11 large paintings on display are both visually and emotionally riveting. What Wiley does is paint everyday African-Americans in the style of famous traditional portraits.

He’s turning classical art upside down by replacing royalty and clergy with everyday people. But the art goes well beyond a political statement by making you think about why the massive portraits are beautiful and haunting at the same time. People in T-shirts, baseball caps and mini-skirts stand before you in 8-foot-tall glory, on a field of colorful flocked ‘wallpaper.’ The stylized backgrounds are entwined with their subjects, serving as both their setting and part of their self-hood. I surmise it’s a statement that these folks, like all of us, are inseparable from their environment and yet distinct from it in their individuality.

Foremost in the exhibit is the very obvious reminder that Western art traditionally has excluded entire segments of society. Wiley reminds us of this omission while also communicating a 21st-century evolution: Art is for all, not just the monied and titled classes. It’s also a reminder of how selective the canon has been for centuries in terms of what is art-worthy: saints, gods, clerics, nobility. But the real world goes way beyond that; so do beauty, dignity and humanity.

Most likely you won’t recognize the people Wiley has immortalized in living color. He chose subjects he met in Ferguson and other North County spots—women sitting in a Wellston pizzeria, men from a Ferguson barbershop— who were paid a nominal fee and instructed to wear what they felt comfortable in to pose for the photos used for his portraits. The resulting paintings depict both ‘everyman’ and distinct men and women with their own real lives and differences. What’s interesting is the way the portraits make you reflect on how much has changed and how much hasn’t.