Symbols Matter / by Jeannine Cook

In an article in the Wall Street Journal in May 2012, painter Kenhinde Wiley was discussing his portraits and the realities of being a portrait artist.  He ended by saying that, "You'll never be able to exist in the market place without recognising that paintings are perhaps the most expensive objects in the art world.  (The work).. is not going to change anyone's life.  But what it does (is) function as a catalyst for a different way of thinking...symbols matter". (my emphasis)

Equestrian Statue of Court-Duke Olivares, Kehinde Wiley, 2005.  Image courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection, Contemporary Arts Foundation, Miami

Wiley has been most skilled at suggesting other versions of past masters' portraits of the great and powerful.  His version of portraits by Rubens, Titian, Tiepoloand others are hugely symbolic as they remind us that the previous white-male-dominated world could indeed have been different.

It is not just by offering different versions of history that artists can offer insights into our world.  As artists, whether we realise it or not, we are offering interpretations and meanings about our surroundings and history. As the late Kirk Varnadoe reminded us in Pictures of Nothing - Abstract Art since Pollock, "We are meaning-makers, not just image-makers.  It is not just that we recognise images - it is that we are constructed to make meaning out of things, that we learn from others how to do it."

Take one of the most famous symbolic paintings of the last hundred years - Guernica, by Pablo Picasso.

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937.  Image courtesy of the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid

  It is one of the clearest demonstrations of the power of symbolism in art. It is a reminder that we can all use art is many powerful ways.