The re-Masters

Wiley puts a new spin on historical art masterpieces

What’s good for the “Da Vinci Code,” may be even better for Kehinde Wiley. The 29-year-old African-American artist has tapped revisionist history to become the darling of the painting world.

Wiley is famous for recreating classic renaissance paintings with young African-Americans and hip-hop artists replacing the wealthy — and very white — landed gentry of the originals. His latest series, “Columbus,” follows suit with a twist. Wiley found his subjects by literally knocking on doors in Columbus, Ohio.

The men, in turn, selected famous paintings from the Columbus Museum of Art as models to emulate. Consequently, the work’s conceit is as much a part of the subject matter as the images themselves.

“I’m not really so concerned with the meaning of the original painting,” says Wiley. “Ultimately, what I’m doing is jacking history. I’m emptying out the original. It’s almost a type of drag in a way.”

And, like cross dressing, it can be campy. However, Wiley’s ability as a painter is undeniable and the Yale grad’s industry following — Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson and Lil’ Kim, among others — continues to grow.

“What (his paintings) do is to make you rethink the old masters,” says John Houston, associate curator at the Columbus Museum of Art, “as well as rethink our image of young black males in our culture.”

Wiley says people always expected him to make politically correct work. Instead, he adopted the mannered style of the masters to upset the traditional model of monied whites and to poke fun at the pageantry of hip hop and the decadence of art. To wit, Wiley’s portraits sell for $30,000 to $60,000.

“My paintings are very much about the consumption and production of blackness,” he says. “And how blackness is marketed to the world.”

Wiley’s own marketing skill will be on display tomorrow night when Roberts & Tilton transforms into a French Rococo gallery space and a string quartet plays hip-hop classics. That, plus his sheer love for his subjects and innate knowledge of the art game, cause some to compare Wiley to another brilliant study in self promotion.

“The comparison [to Warhol] is valid,” says Houston. “He totally understands the marketing of his work just as much as he understands the marketing of black men.”

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