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Get to Know SAM’s VSOs: Greg Thompson

A Seattle native, Greg found his way to the Seattle Art Museum after working as a Brick Mason and attaining his Mechanical Engineering degree. His love of art and personable nature make him a popular guard in the galleries. Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi opened on November 11 at the Asian Art Museum. Her works are mostly digital animation, with four pieces made specifically for this exhibition. Those pieces are based off SAM’s permanent collection pieces that are also displayed throughout the exhibition. Many artists take inspiration from the world around them, including Greg. In the galleries, he’s often drawing depictions of the works currently on display or making caricatures of other VSOs.

SAM: What is your favorite piece of art currently on display at SAM?

Thompson: The Italian Room on the fourth floor. The crazy thing about that room is that it was shipped from Italy piece by piece. I could take a nap in there.

Who is your favorite artist?
Kehinde Wiley and Gordon Parks.

What advice can you offer to guests visiting SAM?
Take your time and enjoy the experience.

Tell us more about you! When you’re not at SAM, what do you spend your time doing?
Well when I’m not at SAM, I like to do stuff in my studio like make mix tapes. I like to watch movies and spend time with friends and family. I’m also studying to be a ventriloquist—I can talk while drinking water now!

Katherine Humphreys, SAM Visitor Services Officer

Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Kehinde Wiley’s Galvanizing Impact

“The history of painting by and large has pictured very few black and brown people, and in particular very few black men. My interest is in countering that absence.”

Kehinde Wiley

Experiencing a meteoric rise on the art scene, Los Angeles native Kehinde Wiley has assumed his place as an influential contemporary American artist. Graduating from the influential Yale School of Art, Wiley received his MFA from the program in 2001. The artist went from the Ivy League to a leading art program—residency at The Studio Museum in Harlem. It was there that a lot of things came together for Wiley in the context of the show he was working on: he found inspiration in the assertive and self-empowered young men of the neighborhood. This kicked off the artist’s serious work in portraiture on modes of representation and the black body.

Installation view of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

“It’s almost like he’s looking back into history to envision a new present and a new future,” said Catharina Manchanda, Seattle Art Museum’s Jon & Mary Shirley Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art. Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is a 14-year retrospective of the artist’s work that features 60 works, including his signature portraits of African American men reworked in the grand portraiture traditions of Western culture, as well as sculptures, videos, and stained glass windows.

Installation view of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

The Brooklyn Art Museum organized the exhibition, which is traveling to a number of cities around the country, experiencing a rousing reception. “He’s received a great amount of attention in part because the work is so captivating, but perhaps what adds special urgency to the work are the political discussions Americans have been having over the course of the last year regarding the lives of black men and women in this country,” Manchanda said. “There is so much possibility in this moment. It’s my hope that this exhibition will engage viewers in an important conversation, as well as create a galvanizing experience that will last long after they leave the galleries.”

Installation view of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

Wiley does not copy traditional portraiture styles from the 18th and 19th centuries, but rather creates mashups where he’s drawing from many sources, like a jazz artist improvising or a hip hop artist mixing pieces of songs together using different ideas and references. The same process—mining elements and then combining them from various sources—fuels Wiley’s work: classic portraiture styles and floral wallpaper designs from the 19th century, among others, serve as inspiration. Altered in color as much as detailing, these compositions frame and elevate his contemporary subjects.

Also on view in the exhibition is the full length film, An Economy of Grace, which documents Wiley as he steps out of his comfort zone to create a series of classical portraits of African-American women for the first time. The exhibition includes works from this project and highlights Wiley’s collaboration with fashion designer Riccardo Tisci at the couture firm Givenchy to design gowns inspired by 19th- and 20th century paintings.

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Don’t miss this exhibition— which closes very soon on May 8! We also invite you to hear from scholar and independent curator Tumelo Mosaka, who will be at Seattle Art Museum on Thursday, April 14, to explore topics related to the exhibition and Wiley’s unapologetic ability to address the historical absence of the black figure by creating portraits of his own desire.

Images: Photo: Stephanie Fink. Installation views of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at Seattle Art Museum, Photos: Elizabeth Crook, © Seattle Art Museum.

Object of the Week: Anthony of Padua

You simply can’t miss the eye-catching posters and banners all over Seattle advertising our next special exhibition, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. When you come for the free opening celebration this week—and do come!—you’ll see huge paintings from private and public collections across the world, including a gem from SAM’s own collection.

Anthony of Padua, a painting in the very traditional method of oil on canvas, measures six feet tall by five feet wide. The figure is imposing, the decoration bright and busy. His is an empowering posture borrowed from the aristocratic patrons of art history and conferred to a young person of color. The rococo frills that surround him speak of the joy of excess.

He brings together, as Kehinde Wiley’s work often does, two worlds of swagger. The original swagger portrait (a real term in art history used even by stuffy academics) developed in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. At the time, those who had the funds to do so might pay an artist to paint them in a very flattering pose, wearing elegant and expensive dress, accompanied by symbols of their knowledge or power. The idea was to show off your status, wealth, and noble character. You wanted to impress those around you and those who would see your painting long after you were gone.

More recently, swagger has been mostly informed by looks, attitudes, and language developed in street culture. Kehinde Wiley’s work picks up on both points of reference, which, when we think about it, are not so different. Urban Dictionary’s top definition describes swagger as “How one presents him- or herself to the world. Swagger is shown from how the person handles a situation. It can also be shown in the person’s walk.” The way to attain it has changed across cultures and across time, but swagger has always been about getting respect by portraying self-confidence. It’s always played out through language, body language, and dress.

To build his new swagger portraits, Wiley has developed a practice of “street-casting” to choose the models for his portraits. Wherever he might find himself looking—and Wiley has taken subjects from places as diverse as Brooklyn and Brazil, India and Israel—he strolls the streets, more or less living his life, but also waiting for a moment of connection with another individual. He’s allowing chance to play a role in selecting who makes it into these paintings, and then onto the walls of a gallery or museum. The models come to the artist’s studio with the instruction to wear everyday clothing and express their personal style. That’s just how the model for Anthony of Padua posed and is portrayed here: with his own coat and patches, teal pants, and octopus necklace.

Anthony of Padua in Seattle Art Museum's European Galleries

Anthony of Padua arrived at SAM in 2013, shortly after he was painted. Here, he was not destined for the Modern and Contemporary galleries, but found his home right away in the European Baroque galleries, surrounded by the likes of Veronese and Anthony van Dyck—one of the most successful to ever do a flattering portrait.

The historical figure who informs the title of SAM’s Kehinde Wiley painting is Anthony of Padua, who lived 1195-1231, and who was canonized in 1232. I like to think that SAM’s painting, if only because it shares his name and a resemblance to another artist’s depiction of him, carries some of the presence and virtues of the saint. In life, Anthony of Padua became known as a devoted student, one with a remarkable memory, and as a convincing, charismatic orator. In the Catholic tradition, he cares for, and hears prayers from, the poor, the elderly, expectant mothers, travelers, and seekers of lost things. Fittingly for us here in Seattle, he is also the patron of fishermen, domestic animals, and mariners.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Anthony of Padua, 2013, Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977), oil on canvas, 72 x 60 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Contemporary Collectors Forum, 2013.8, © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Robert Wade.

SAM Art: Unlike any St. Anthony you’ve ever seen

An ingenious interpreter of grand Western portraiture traditions, Kehinde Wiley is one of the leading American artists to emerge in the last decade. This spring, the museum acquired the artist’s most recent work.

Since ancient times the portrait has been tied to representations of power. Wiley’s paintings are highly stylized and staged, and draw attention to the interplay between a history of aristocratic representation and the portrait as a statement of power and the individual’s sense of empowerment. For this canvas—based on a Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres stained glass window depicting St. Anthony of Padua—Wiley asked a young man in New York to be his model.  The formal pose contrasts sharply with the man’s contemporary street clothes, objects and emblems, including a Black Panther patch.

Anthony of Padua, 2013, Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977), oil on canvas, 72 × 60 in., General Acquisition Fund, 2013.8, © Kehinde Wiley, image courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California. Currently on view in the European Art galleries, fourth floor, SAM Downtown.