John, 1st Baron Byron (2013) by Kehinde WileyMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
Kehinde Wiley often quotes European “masters” in his highly stylized portraits while exploring issues of race, economic disparity, gender and sexuality. Wiley uses what he calls an "urban vernacular," often street casting his subjects—mostly young, anonymous men of color—in the traditional roles held by the powerful, white and wealthy noblemen who populate the grand portraits of history. For John, 1st Baron Byron, he took inspiration from a painting of the same name, made in the seventeenth century by British painter William Dobson.
That work portrays the English cavalier John Byron, 1st Baron Byron, who points out of the frame. Wiley appropriates the gesture of Dobson's Byron but reverses it.
Wiley sets his own model, dressed in designer street clothes, against a florid and vibrantly patterned background based on historical Indian silks.
Enhanced and enlarged, the stylized plant tendrils seem to entwine themselves around the subject's body, and his dark skin glows as if lit by the deep red of the background.
As with many of his portraits, Wiley's depiction of this muscular model carries an overt homoeroticism. It is a challenge not only to the portrayals of male sexuality throughout art history, but also to the difficulties that many black gay men face in gaining acceptance within their own communities.
Between the powerful gaze of Wiley’s model and our own looms the question of what it means to participate in, or to be excluded from, wider society or culture.
Text adapted from the MFA Publications CommonWealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and MFA Highlights: Contemporary Art.
Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston