Kehinde Wiley explores modern Israeli culture at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

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How to describe the comportment of the Israeli men in Kehinde Wiley’s portraits? Heads are tilted back and cocked to the side, jaws are tense. Stately and supercilious? Yes, but also guarded and defiant. “The head must be proud, proud,” Wiley says in an accompanying video, coaching a model. Rappers on album covers are the contemporary purveyors of this mien (T.I. is a good example, Eminem is too dour), but Wiley traces its genealogy back further — to the traditional European portraiture of the Old Masters.

“The World Stage: Israel,” Kehinde Wiley’s exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, features young able-bodied Israeli men (Israeli Jews, Ethiopian Jews and Israeli Arabs) that Wiley scouted in the clubs and on the streets of Israel in 2010. As the curatorial notes put it, Wiley evokes the “visual vocabulary of aristocratic Western European portraiture.” Wiley, who has conducted the World Stage series in China, Brazil, India and Nigeria, to name a few, aims to incorporate into his portraits of marginalized men “aspects of regional history, traditional patterns and designs, and sly nods to the social and political milieu in which his models live.”

A visitor will spend a considerable amount of time piecing together the historical footnotes that make up the paintings’ vivid backgrounds. These backgrounds, which often curl into dense vines (traditionally Arabic in style), encroach on the contemporary portraits of the men in the foreground. Every portrait is encrypted with biblical and folkloric metaphor; most frequent are representations of Leviathan and regional animals like deer, leopards and lions. A quote from the Old Testament encircles the head of one model like a halo. While this is all magisterial and superficially pleasing, the connection between allusion and model remains fuzzy.

Also prominently featured is the seldom commented-upon experience of the black diaspora, namely the history of Ethiopian Jews. Wiley takes great care to underscore the difficulty of immigrant groups jostling for recognition on the margins of Israeli culture. He poses the perennial question of national identity: How can a nation hope to forge a cohesive identity if its members are so different?

This is a good question but one that is hard to ask when the models do, in fact, seem uniform. A word on the subjects: They are stunning. All are radiant, many are muscular, and the few that do not exude sex have charismatic faces nonetheless. Pulchritude aside, these men are nearly indistinguishable in their socioeconomic echelon (or so their wardrobe seems to suggest). Only street clothes are worn, usually brand names: Nike, Armani Exchange, Lacoste. A Rasta sporting a lip ring is one of the few tepid steps toward diversity.

Wiley’s idea is certainly profitable (downstairs, skateboards emblazoned with Wiley’s portraits greet museum goers in the gift shop), but it is not without flaws. Women are conspicuously absent in Wiley’s work. So much so that two elderly women at the exhibit, having found no female humans in the portraits, sought hope in avian anatomy: They spent the greater part of an hour appraising a bird in one of the aureate backgrounds, trying to determine whether or not it was female. A consensus was never reached.

With references to Israeli sponsored airlifts of the ’80s, at times the exhibition feels like a history lesson as much as it does a diverting cultural exhibition. Israeli history asserts itself in every room. In smaller ones, a Hebrew marriage license (ketubot) and religious paper plaques (shiviti) provide context. In the spacious white room at the end, two Torah ark curtains from Cairo and Jerusalem float in the center like large center tables. But this is far from oppressive; historical details and religious artifacts help flesh out the portraits.

In an effort to humanize and distinguish models, the exhibition supplies backstories. The model we get to know best is Ethiopian-born rapper Kalkidan, who we see at home reciting some of his lines in the exhibition video: “So are you ready for the melting pot? Brother, it’s bullshit quality.” If it were not for periodic details like these, the exhibition would collapse into the very thing it cautioned against — objectification.

Wiley’s take on traditional portraiture is intriguing. Even his technical detail is marvelous. But the aesthetic is gaudy. The portraits look like they were produced by two different artists: It’s as if Rubens painted the hyperreal portraits but Lisa Frank was commissioned for the decorative background. How often does one see centuries worth of stylistic range in one artist? This alone calls for an immediate viewing.

Contact Neha Kulsh at [email protected].

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