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Rev. Wright of Art? Obama Portraitist Previously Painted Images of Blacks Decapitating Whites

The relatively obscure artist has a very colorful, and controversial, background

Is he the Reverend Wright of the art world?

Meet Kehinde Wiley, the relatively obscure portraitist former President Obama commissioned to paint him for the National Portrait Gallery. 

The artist's repertoire largely focuses on placing contemporary black subjects within religious and historical contexts. Here's how the Columbus Museum of Art describes the style: "Wiley has gained recent acclaim for his heroic portraits which address the image and status of young African-American men in contemporary culture."

The artist, who identifies as gay, was born in Los Angeles and studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and Yale University's School of Art. The Washington Post said described his paintings as having "a distinct homoerotic quality."

"So much of what I do now is a type of self-portraiture," Wiley wrote in an FAQ on his website. "As an undergrad at the Art Institute of San Francisco, I really honed in on the technical aspects of painting and being a masterful painter. And then at Yale it became much more about arguments surrounding identity, gender and sexuality, painting as a political act, questions of post-modernity, etc." 

"Wiley, who has made portraits of LL Cool J, Michael Jackson and Notorious B.I.G., often skewers the pomp and grandiloquence of historical portraiture, painting his subjects in poses familiar from classic works by Napoleon’s propagandist, Jacque-Louis David, or Tiepolo or Peter Paul Rubens (Wiley depicted Jackson on horseback, wearing the armor of a Habsburg king, crowned by angelic flying figures)," the Post wrote Monday. "Many of his works, which engage with hip-hop culture, have a distinct homoerotic quality as well."

A review of the artist's online portfolio of 100+ paintings revealed none featuring a white subject; in fact, the only time whites were depicted was when their heads were cut off. 

Here are two such paintings:

Wiley's paintings frequently inject subjects making gang signs within biblical settings:

Wiley describes his art as "interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit." He says his portraits "quote historical sources and position young black men within that field of power."

"What I can say unequivocally," Obama said today at his portrait unveiling, "is that I am in awe of this artist’s gifts and what he has given to this country and to the world."

Obama said he was "very grateful" to have been the subject of Wiley's "attention for this brief moment."

Wiley's portrait of the president received widespread scorn online. Wiley described the unusual floral backdrop this way: 

“It does not get any better than that. I was humbled by this invitation, but I was also inspired by Barack Obama’s personal story. That since in which he and I both do have that echo of single parents, African fathers, that search for the father, that sense of twinning. There is this echo of he and I in that narrative. When you look at this painting, there is sure, an amazingly handsome man seated, but there's also botanicals that are going on there that nod towards his personal story. Chrysanthemums, the state flower of Chicago, Illinois. There's flowers that point toward Kenya, toward Hawaii. In a very symbolic way, what I am doing is charting his path on Earth through those plants that sort of weave their way. There is a fight going on between he and the foreground and the plants that are sort of trying to announce themselves underneath his feet. Who gets to be the star of the show, the story or the man who inhabits that story? It is all chance-driven. Mr. President, I thank you for giving me a chance and I thank you for giving this nation a chance to experience your splendor on a global scale. 

As Grabien News was researching this report, the artist's website went offline. [Update: The website is now back online] Attempts to reach out to the author for comment were unsuccessful. 

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