Artist Kehinde Wiley stared down fame at a young age, then pushed back.
“I had to get out of my comfort zone,” he said Wednesday at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, sitting on a chair in special exhibition space that for the next three months will house proof of how successful his push was.
He went from being a talented Yale University graduate student, thinking he had an idea for a new way of adding minorities to classical images of art, to an internationally acclaimed conceptual artist enjoying his first career retrospective.
The VMFA is one of just seven museums on the national tour of “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic.” The show, created and curated by the Brooklyn Museum, features 57 pieces — mostly paintings but also stained glass and sculpture — from the New York-based artist.
It will be the VMFA’s largest exhibition ever of works by an African-American artist.
The show opens to VMFA members today and to the general public Saturday, and it will remain in town through Sept. 5.
Wiley, who turns 40 next year, began his career in Harlem in his mid 20s by portraying young black men in poses long associated with classic pieces of art.
The outsized work — some canvases stretch 6 to 8 feet high, and 8 to 10 feet long — is stunning in its subject and its artistry, with black men in contemporary garb of their choice on horseback, holding swords and placed in settings more often associated with wealthy or powerful white men.
“But I’m not sure just that would have warranted a mid-career retrospective,” Michael Taylor, the chief curator at the VMFA, said as he toured the galleries Wednesday. “It’s what he has added that makes it work.”
Wiley has taken his art international by working with models throughout the world, and he has expanded his comfort zone to include working with women.
“I promise you one thing: You will be wowed,” VMFA Director Alex Nyerges said before opening the exhibit.
The exhibit also has been in Fort Worth, Texas, and in Seattle. When it leaves Richmond, it will go to Phoenix; Toledo, Ohio; and Oklahoma City.
Like the Brooklyn Museum, the VMFA was an early purchaser of Wiley’s work, acquiring the portrait “Willem van Huythusen” in 2006. That’s the first image viewers of the show will see.
That purchase helped spur the museum’s interest in improving its collection of African and African-American art, which now is the museum’s collecting focus.
In addition to the art, the exhibit also features an interactive “art lounge” in which people can learn more about Wiley. Postcard-sized Wiley trading cards will be given out that show his work on one side and a piece from the VMFA collection on the other.
“Rather than just be a static experience ... you have somewhere else to go in the museum,” Nyerges said.
Wiley said that while the show has been the same everywhere it has hung, it has been perceived differently.
“It will provoke site-specific reactions,” he said.
The crowds in Brooklyn, pulled from “one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world,” reacted differently from crowds in Seattle, “which you don’t always think of for its ethnic diversity,” he said.
All, he said, should contribute to a global conversation on race.
“You said Richmond has a history of racial animosity,” Wiley said. “Well, the world has a history of racial animosity. This will provoke reactions to that.”