Kehinde Wiley at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 Third Avenue South.
Los Angeles-born painter Kehinde Wiley excels in portraiture of Black figures contrasted by rich and detailed floral backgrounds, but his work outside of this style succeeds just as much–if not more. His 2009 painting “Santos Dumont - The Father of Aviation II” demonstrates his innate ability to bring shadows, fabric, and human skin to life and offers up a saturated window into transposed history.
On display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, “Santos Dumont - The Father of Aviation II” depicts two Black men at a Brazilian monument, positioning themselves as the “fallen heroes,” transposing themselves in reference to Brazilian aviation pioneer “Alberto Santos-Dumont.” The painting is part of a larger series placing Black figures in interpretations of traditionally European portraiture.
Wiley’s strong suit of capturing the depth and beauty of dark-hued skin tones is immediately clear upon viewing. The figure on the right side of the canvas sports a white sleeveless shirt that exposes a smooth shoulder glimmering in the sun. Painted skin in such a smooth and reflective nature is rare to come by. Some may find this fixation on the subject's shoulder unimportant, but it’s what jumps out upon first viewing. Wiley’s painted skin is rich with highlights under the sun, wrinkles, and a polished nature that is something between realism and an inhuman softness.
Additionally, his presentation of fabric is so clear and refined, it almost prompts a head scratch as to how he managed it. Both figures wear clothing complete with ripples and waves due to their positions, and the attention to detail of the clothing begs the question of whether or not this piece is mixed media. If someone were to walk by, it wouldn’t be surprising if they were to assume Wiley had plastered actual fabric to the canvas to act as the figure’s garments. What makes the painting so successful is the clear-eyed vision for the figures and the dedication to each detail.
Keeping in theme with his other works, the background of this piece offers up a somewhat surreal interpretation of normalcy. Instead of intricate floral arrangements, he paints cotton candy-like clouds with detailed shadows. The blue of the sky behind the clouds is a bit too sharp of a gradient from light to dark for it to be considered entirely realistic, but the style keeps with his style of backgrounding his pieces.
The only main feature of the work that lacks is in the right figure’s hair. The right figure sports short hair that appears flat and undetailed. The scalp looks almost unfinished because of its missing details and lack of dimension. It’s unclear if this was a conscious decision on Wiley’s part, but to the viewer it seems like it may have been a detail overlooked or a result of him wanting to wrap up the piece and glazing over it quickly. Despite the lack of detail in the right figure’s hair, the left’s style makes up for it. The left figure’s locs are individually detailed to create the look of a thick head of hair, and is a more subtle but effective addition to the piece.
Although it’s unclear without researching or reading the artist statement, the positioning of figures and location of the piece provide a meticulous historical significance. As previously mentioned, Wiley often places Black figures into classically European stories and portraits. This piece not only is a saturated feast for the eyes, but prompts an introspection about the inclusion of Black perspectives in history. The piece isn’t inherently “political,” but simply pushes for a broader representation among collective memory of past events and monuments. All of these aspects in summation make for a piece that engages the viewer in multiple ways.