NEW YORK—Spiritual concepts, emotions or experiences may spark an artist’s creative imagination. Kehinde Wiley is inspired by all three.

The Jewish Museum in New York City is currently exhibiting The World Stage: Israel, a series of paintings by Wiley, in its Bloomberg Gallery. Wiley found the muse for his monumental works in traditional European Jewish paper cuttings and ancient Hebraic embroidery, integrating realistic representations of Israeli youths of Ethiopian heritage—painted with almost photographic reality.

Wiley paints in the style of traditional portraitists. His subjects, however, reflect contemporary images in a fusion of periods and styles. His work, said the exhibit’s curator, Karen Levitov, “creates a convergence of the diaspora geography of the Jewish journey.”

The 14 paintings on display are one of several groups in Wiley’s “World” series, each of which concentrates on a specific population. The groups include heroically posed African-American, Afro-Brazilian, and Indian young men, as well as the Ethiopian Israelis displayed at the Jewish Museum.

Wiley took his initial inspiration from books, noted Levitov. “Only late in his journey did he have the opportunity to explore the extensive store room of the museum and study the original embroideries and cutting patterns” he painted as his ornament keynotes, she said. His portraits integrate these patterns with realistic human figures, creating “a visual description of Ethiopian Jewish young men’s experience in Israel,” according to Levitov. Each painting on display at the Jewish Museum portrays a complex individual story.

A New York-based portrait painter whose works combine naturalistic images of contemporary individuals with traditional symbolic designs, Wiley was born in California and has a Nigerian father. His talent was evident early: by the age of 12, he had already studied art in Russia. At 20, he traveled to Nigeria to explore his roots and meet his father. He holds degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute and Yale University School of Art.

Wiley uses a multimedia creative process including photographic imaging and fine oil portraiture. He describes his approach as “interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit.”

Kehinde Wiley’s The World Stage: Israel at The Jewish Museum in New York can be viewed through July 29, 2012. For more information visit http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/.

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