Arts & Theater

His painting of Barack Obama made waves. Now his work is hanging in the Crocker

Crocker Art Museum has purchased a painting by Kehinde Wiley, a coveted creator whose presidential portrait of Barack Obama was unveiled Monday to an overwhelmingly positive reaction.

Wiley’s “Portrait of Simon George II” hangs in the museum’s third-story hallway in advance of the “Hopes Springing High: Gifts of Art by African American Artists,” an exhibit celebrating Black History Month set to open Sunday.

The 72-by-60-inch painting features a young black man with a thin mustache and sideburns turned slightly away from the viewer. Originally painted in 2007, the subject is wearing a white do-rag, blue jeans, a powder blue basketball jersey from Carmelo Anthony’s time with the Denver Nuggets and a dark blue Los Angeles Dodgers jacket.

George’s clothing speaks to Wiley’s own past, Crocker assistant curator Christie Hajela said. The artist grew up in South Central Los Angeles before moving to Harlem, and was 30 years old when Anthony played in his first of 10 All-Star Games.

“We’ve really had our eye on Kehinde’s work for a long time now. He’s definitely been a rising star since the early 2000s,” Hajela said.

Many of Wiley’s paintings apply themes from historic European works to modern-day common people of color. The man’s pose in “Portrait of Simon George II” matches that of a woman in Rembrandt’s 17th century “Woman with a Pink,” though Wiley swapped out the titular pink carnation for a more regal tulip, while the piece’s title follows the 16th century Hans Holbein the Younger painting “Portrait of Simon George of Cornwall.”

Flowers are a central theme in Obama’s portrait as well. Out from a lush green wall poke African blue lillies, for the former president’s father’s homeland of Kenya; jasmine, for his roots in Hawaii; and chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago – where his political career began and where he met his wife, Michelle.

A Wiley portrait of a young black man in a throwback Houston Astros jersey hung in the Crocker last year as part of the traveling exhibition “Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose.”

This one is the Crocker’s to keep for an undisclosed sum, though spokeswoman Karen Christian noted only about 10 percent of the museum’s collection is displayed at a given time.

Benjy Egel: 916-321-1052, @BenjyEgel