In Arts & Entertainment

Kehinde Wiley's "St. Dionysius," a detail of which is pictured here, hangs at Milwaukee Art Museum. (PHOTO: Milwaukee Art Museum)

Obama portrait artist has Wisconsin connections, including a work at MAM

Brooklyn-based artist Kehinde Wiley unveiled his unconventional portrait of President Barack Obama a week ago, and folks are still talking about it.

Can you remember any time in the past that a presidential portrait caused more than a glance and a shrug before fading quickly into the ether? Yesterday, NBCNews.com posted a think piece that says that Wiley's work "proves Americans struggle to engage with art."

I think it also proves that, given the right art, Americans can't help but engage with it. If we weren't engaged, we'd be talking about something else, especially in these times, when there's no shortage of fodder to masticate in the media. (Though the NBCNews.com point that most Americans can't likely read many of contemporary art's historical art references is well-taken.)

So, like it or not, Wiley's portrait is already a success, if you ask me.

Wiley – who, along with Michelle Obama portraitist Amy Sherald, is the first black artist to receive a presidential commission from the National Portrait Gallery – has also been popping up frequently this past week in Milwaukee social media feeds because of the artist's connection to Wisconsin.

One of his (relatively) early solo exhibitions, "The World Stage: China," was on view at the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan in 2006, and Wiley's work was also included in the "30 Americans" show at Milwaukee Art Museum in 2013.

In fact, a Wiley work remains in the permanent collection at Milwaukee Art Museum. His "St. Dionysius" was donated to MAM by the African American Art Alliance in 2006 in honor of its 15th anniversary.

"Kehinde Wiley had already been widely recognized in the gallery scene when we were lucky enough to acquire his work," says MAM Interim Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary Art, Margaret Andera. "The same year we acquired 'St. Dionysus,' the Columbus Museum of Art presented his first solo museum exhibition of his work.

"When we add art to our collection, we do so not based on the fame, or potential fame, of the artist, but based on the cultural and artistic accomplishment that the work achieves. Wiley is an innovative painter who delves deeply into the history of art while exploring notions of power and fame."

Andera says she was excited to hear that Wiley was selected to do the Obama portrait.

"'St. Dionysus' is similar in composition to the presidential portrait of Barack Obama and shares key elements of Wiley's signature style including a larger-than-life central figure who directly gazes out at the viewer and a mesmerizing decorative pattern that aggressively emerges from the background into the foreground.

"I want to see all artists with the skill, and inventiveness that Wiley demonstrates get the professional success and attract the kind of attention that brings more people to view and appreciate art."

The large – 5x6-foot oil on canvas – hangs in the museum's Gallery K110 on level one, near the Kohl's Art Generation Studio.

Stop in to see it and keep the discussion going, because that's what art's all about.


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