With portraits of men of color in trendy ghetto gear posed in attitudes copied from the Old Masters, Kehinde Wiley aims to ‘make paintings that matter in the 21st century’
In the course of less than a decade, Kehinde Wiley has come to enjoy the kind of art-world acclaim most young artists can only dream of. He operates out of three studios around the globe (in New York, Beijing, and Senegal). His large-scale portraits sell for up to $250,000 and have been bought by major collectors as well as such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Walker Art Center. He has had nine solo shows and major overviews at the Brooklyn Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem—all before he reached the age of 33.
The next sentence should read something like, “For all this acclaim, Wiley is surprisingly modest and unassuming.” But that wouldn’t quite be true. This is, after all, a man who posed in an ornately embroidered greatcoat, astride a white horse, for House & Garden magazine and arranged for the drag queen and opera singer Shequida to appear, dressed in a Venetian gown, at his 2004 opening at the Brooklyn Museum. In person, the baby-faced artist is friendly and collected, and he is both astute and articulate about his accomplishments and his goals.
In the midst of moving his studio from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to the garment district in Manhattan, Wiley meets me in the library of his New York gallery, Sean Kelly, in Chelsea, which will host his solo show next May. (He is also represented by Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago and Roberts & Tilton in Los Angeles.) He is dressed in a style that might be described as Wall Street meets hip-hop: a three-piece dark-blue suit replete with watch chain, a dark shirt and tie, and worn black sneakers. But when he takes off his jacket, he exposes on the lining a full-color photo-screenprint portrait of one of his proud and handsome subjects, this one discovered on the street in Senegal. (It goes without saying that Wiley designs his own clothes.)
The outfit seems a perfect metaphor for Wiley’s art, in which the worlds of tradition and power collide with those of disenfranchised minorities to explosive effect. From the beginning of his career, his portraits have featured young men of color in trendy ghetto gear—football jerseys, do-rags, baseball caps, diamond-stud earrings, flashy watches and chains—posed in attitudes copied from the Old Masters. The images refer back to the aristocratic subjects of Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, and Van Dyck (and occasionally to saints, martyrs, or Christ himself), and until recently the figures were set against decorative backdrops of swirly patterns that weave behind and around the sitters. All of this is accomplished in a highly polished realist style that has caused more than one critic to marvel at the sheer technical proficiency of his epic-size work (The Dead Christ in the Tomb, 2007, showing a muscular black youth laid out on a cloth-draped slab, is 12 feet long).
Wiley’s beginnings scarcely presaged art-world fame and fortune. His Nigerian father left the family shortly before he was born, in 1977. He and his five siblings were raised in South Central Los Angeles at a time when gang violence and hip-hop music were becoming touchstones of black culture. “We found ways of surviving,” Wiley recalls. “We would pick up old furniture in the streets and refurbish it and sell it in a resale store. I learned Spanish in the streets of L.A., selling secondhand clothes.” But his African American mother, a graduate student in African linguistics, found opportunities for her children. “My twin brother and I would go to a predominantly Jewish summer camp,” he recalls. “They had a scholarship program for lower-income families. I guess they never assumed that two black kids from the inner city would apply.”
Wiley developed an early aptitude for drawing and painting. “I could make a car that looked like a real car,” he recalls. “I was sort of awkward as a kid. Painting became my security blanket, something that made me cool as an overweight, nerdy boy.” When he was eleven, his mother sent him and his brother to an art school, where Wiley learned a few basic skills and discovered a world beyond the ghetto. The teachers took their students to museums, including the Huntington Library, which has a world-class collection of 18th- and 19th-century British portraiture. Wiley felt an immediate affinity for the accoutrements of these aristocratic likenesses; he was fascinated by “the powdered wigs and the lapdogs, the pearls and the jewels.”
At twelve, he went to an art school in Russia. “This is not your normal story about urban blight,” the artist wryly notes. “My mother was ambitious and well educated. But we were also in the hood. You’ve got this weird imbalance between a hypersensitivity to global culture, but at the same time you’re in economically impoverished and depressing circumstances. The disparity threw all our lives into sharp focus.”
A few years later, Wiley found himself at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, far enough from Los Angeles for him to establish his independence but close enough to maintain family ties. “It offered a very classic art training,” he recalls. “I learned how to paint from life, to draw the figure from life. With this material understanding came a second level of education that began in San Francisco, and that was about all of the conceptual strategies within painting.” He gained a “way of making a beautiful painting” but also began to have an “engagement with the evolution of contemporary culture—a concern with gender, color, and class.”
While still an undergraduate, at the age of 20, Wiley set out to find his father. He boarded a plane to Nigeria with no clear idea of how to track the man down nor any sense of what he looked like, because his mother had destroyed all photos of him. His father had studied architecture, so Wiley checked all the universities to see if he had pursued that calling in Africa. Finally, Wiley was advised to go to the ethnic center for Ibido culture, in the region where his father’s name was most prevalent. There he found that his father had become head of the architecture department at the University of Calabar in Cross River State, Nigeria. Wiley won’t talk about their meeting.
After earning his degree in San Francisco, Wiley headed straight for the M.F.A. program at Yale. “I didn’t want to get lost out there,” he says. “It’s so easy to take a break and then one year turns into five and before you know it, you’re someone’s short-order cook.” Yale offered a stellar faculty that included Kerry James Marshall, Mel Bochner, and Peter Halley, along with a “smorgasbord of ideas,” he says. “You’re looking not only at art history but social history and anthropology, the ways that people have solved essential questions as to who we are and what are our passions.” His goal, he adds, was “to be able to paint illusionistically and master the technical aspects, but then to be able to fertilize that with great ideas.”
Next came a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. “It’s a kindergarten in the truest sense of the word,” Wiley says. “You’ve got a place to work, a small stipend. It was there that I started losing all the trappings and pretensions of Yale and the obsessions with getting it right and perfect that I’d learned in San Francisco. I wanted to engage with the people of 125th Street.”
Wiley began to make what he describes as “casting calls,” venturing out into upper Manhattan to find the subjects for his work—a practice he still follows, though now he heads out with a camera crew, studio assistants, a lighting expert, and “beautiful women who do the first introduction.” He also has examples of his paintings on hand, and sometimes discovers kids who are already familiar with his work. “A lot of guys do know who I am and have an understanding of contemporary art,” he says.
In the neighborhoods and clubs he visits, Wiley looks for “people who have a certain self-possession, alpha characteristics. It has nothing to do with scale or size. Certain people will just look great in a painting.” In the studio, wearing clothes of their own choosing, his subjects are invited to decide on poses from preselected reproductions of Old Masters.
“There’s a certain type of hubris involved here,” Wiley notes. “It’s about my taste in art history, certainly, but at the same time these models are choosing how they want to be presented.” (The celebrity rapper Ice-T, for instance, opted for Ingres’s image of Napoleon, saying, “If anyone deserves to be Napoleon on the throne, it’s me.”) Wiley works from photographs—in themselves striking character studies—painting the figures himself with assistants filling in the decorative details.
For the “World Stage” series, which has preoccupied him over the last few years, Wiley has scoured for subjects in Africa, China, Brazil, and most recently Sri Lanka and Israel. “We’re talking about hip-hop clubs where you find Ashkenazi, Sephardic, or even Palestinian Jews. We set up a photo studio in the back of the club and all the photographs we take become source material,” he explains. “This segment of the population is something you rarely see in the media coverage of Israel. All we see in the mainstream media are the problematic aspects, the guns and bombs and riots.”
Wiley typically spends about three months in each place, and his forays occasionally give rise to harrowing moments. In Rio, a cab carrying him and some friends through a rough neighborhood was pulled over by a cop. “He peered down at us, three young black men, sitting in the backseat of a taxi,” his friend, the novelist Brian Keith Jackson, later recalled in a catalogue essay. “The taxi driver explained he’d picked us up at one store and was taking us to another. . . . The officer remained skeptical, but after another assessing glance, he let us go. Though we needed no explanation, the driver told us the policeman had assumed we were buying drugs.”
Wiley was in that Brazilian neighborhood looking not for models but for seafood to use as bait, because fishing is his favorite off-hours activity. “Angling is something that will get me to do a speaking gig before anything else,” he says. “If there’s great fishing, I’ll come.” He is partial to both deep-sea and river fishing and does it all over the world, and every year he heads down to Santee Cooper Lake in South Carolina for the catfishing.
Wiley is keenly aware of some of the ironies of his life. His paintings of young men from the poorest neighborhoods around the world sell for top dollar to a privileged elite of largely white collectors. A gay man, he paints images of a culture that is stereotypically viewed as exaggeratedly heterosexual (“There’s an interesting anxiety to what’s possibly queer about them,” he notes.) He selects his subjects from the hotspots of rap and hip-hop culture, but his own musical tastes tend toward classic jazz.
“I remember blasting Miles Davis when I lived in Oakland,” he recalls, “and the black kids screamed, ‘Turn that fucking white music off!’” As attuned as he is to the inequities of the global village, even his beloved Italian greyhounds—four in all, divided between his homes in Beijing and New York—are of an elegant and expensive breed he discovered in Old Master paintings.
Though his art could easily slip completely into the realm of social commentary, Wiley shies away from any overt message. “My work is not concerned with creating political correctness,” he says. “That sort of didactic stuff is quite boring, honestly. No one wants to be preached to. I just want to see a rapturously gorgeous picture that happens to be about contemporary social issues. A lot of people can make stuff look like stuff. I think the trick with art is to be able to make paintings that matter in the 21st century.”
Ann Landi is an ARTnews contributing editor.