In his own life, US-American painter Kehinde Wiley exudes a sublimely serendipitous and serene sangfroid – channelling all the energy and excitement of his existence into a series of bold and brash life-size pictures
Clad in a mint-green suit and stark, rectangular designer sunnies, Kehinde Wiley could easily have escaped one of his own, life-size pop paintings. A charismatic modern-day Warhol with a strong intellectual streak, the artist initially rose to fame and notoriety for his restagings of Old Masters like Titian or Gainsborough, albeit with a contemporary and exclusively male cast. The impressive and imposing visual results, a kind of “break dance meets dandy,” caused a veritable storm and scandal in the art scene – and firmly put Wiley on the map. Now expanding his style and scope, the graceful, laid-back and simply stylish LA born painter reveals his first ever expressive and evocative portrait series of exclusively African-American women.
Almost a touch too suave and sophisticated in his outer appearance, this image might serve as a clever marketing ploy to convey the underlying socio-critical allusions and references reflected in many of his works. Often hidden in intricate ornaments and floral patterns, Wiley’s images communicate the artist’s true thoughts and focus: power and dominance, a central and lasting motif in human history. At the same time, the Yale graduate easily wows the in-crowd with shows at the (now closed) über-hip Deitch Gallery and a nod to photographer David LaChapelle who counts among his patrons and collectors. Not to forget his involvement in the latest Santigold album, Master of My Make-Believe, where he gave the cool singer a swift sex change to portray her as a man. But what is it all about? What are his real goals and passions? Looking for a peek below the painter’s polished surface, we interview Kehinde Wiley after the opening rush of the An Economy of Grace exhibition at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York’s Chelsea district.
In order to pick your protagonists, you go out on the street and ask passers-by to pose for you. What are your selection criteria?
It’s a very spontaneous and intuitive process.
Do you find it very hard to persuade people to take part?
Well, whenever I leave the house I tend to carry an exhibition catalogue with me to justify and "legitimise" my project, so to speak. Especially in America, where getting famous is as easy as making instant noodles, anyone seems to expect to be discovered anyway. In Brazil, Western Africa or Sri Lanka, however, it was very different. Over there, you could sense the fear and reticence in people, it was probably pure self-preservation. In any case, it was interesting to observe how all these different urban cultures fit into my street castings.
How did your collaboration with Givenchy’s creative director Riccardo Tisci for your new series come about?
In French and British portraiture it used to be au fait to create bespoke couture for an upcoming sitting. The clothes played a vital narrative role in the painting’s creative process. And this was something I wanted to recreate. To this end, it was essential to work with someone who understood the underlying sense of drama. Riccardo and I once had the entire Parisian Louvre to ourselves for an afternoon. We had a long conversation on attire and art history; a conversation that led us to David’s Madame Recarmier and her striking neoclassical style, a look both of us liked and admired.
What turned out to be your biggest challenge?
To depict female figures of art history in a different way and light from the one we are used to. In a way, I am doing it all in order to restart the discussion on "beauty". Time and again, I notice that people simply accept its current depiction as the norm. Up to now, my works were mostly about the recognition and interpretation of masculinity in terms of power – an approach that favours exaggerations and eye-catching decorative elements. They represent a kind of "over-ripeness" of these existing conditions.
What was it like to paint women for a change?
(Laughs) Well, it wasn’t radically different.
You were also involved in the design of the latest Santigold album cover.
Santi and I are great friends and I am a huge fan of her work. It was one of those rare opportunities for a very close and personal collaboration. We share an aesthetic and spiritual connection, if you like. And the performance aspect of her music pretty much matches my own.
What is the cover all about?
First of all, it deals with the changed perception of your own persona. But then again, there is a lot more involved – it is about exploring opportunities that allow you to break the mould without getting fenced in. I think this is one of the possible paths to becoming a master of imagination.
How would you characterise the times we live in?
My pictures often comment on excessive consumption, on bling and a type of vulgarity that seems to define contemporary culture. And it all becomes even more interesting when you contrast our times with those of late French rococo, an era defined by the same things – by aspects that have lost none of their significance. Through my work, I am both critical and part of the problem. European easel painting has a lot to do with dominating others, but also with using brush and paint to create something truly wonderful. Against this background, I both question and admire this old tradition.
Finally, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Can you still remember your first ever painting?
Among many other works, the Huntington Library in California has two portraits on display: Pinkie, Thomas Lawrence’s girl in a pink dress, and The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough. I spent many hours sketching those two. And now, so many years down the line, I can spot the link to my current output.
Additional information on the artwork above:
2: Juliette Recamier, 2012. Oil on linen. Painting: 72 x 96 inches (182.9 x 243.8 cm), framed: 82 1/2 x 106 1/4 inches (209.6 x 269.9 cm) © Kehinde Wiley / Copyright: Sean Kelly Gallery, New York
3: Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, 2012. Oil on linen. Painting: 96 x 72 inches (243.8 x 182.9 cm), framed: 106 3/8 x 82 inches (270.2 x 208.3 cm) © Kehinde Wiley / Copyright: Sean Kelly Gallery, New York and The Two Sisters, 2012. Oil on linen. Painting: 96 x 72 inches (243.8 x 182.9 cm), framed: 106 3/8 x 82 inches (270.2 x 208.3 cm) © Kehinde Wiley / Copyright: Sean Kelly Gallery, New York
4: Mary Little, Later Lady Carr, 2012. Oil on canvas. Painting: 30 x 24 inches (76.2 x 61 cm), framed: 38 1/4 x 32 3/8 inches (97.2 x 82.2 cm) © Kehinde Wiley / Copyright: Sean Kelly Gallery, New York and Treisha Lowe, 2012. Oil on linen. Painting: 96 x 72 inches (243.8 x 182.9 cm), framed: 106 3/8 x 82 inches (270.2 x 208.3 cm) © Kehinde Wiley / Copyright: Sean Kelly Gallery, New York
5: The Virgin Martyr St. Cecilia, 2008, 101.5” x 226.5”, Oil on canvas © Kehinde Wiley / Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago and Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris
6: Santos Dumont - the Father of Aviation III (O Christo Redentor), 2009, Oil on canvas © Kehinde Wiley / Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, CulverCity, California
7: The Chancellor Seguier on Horseback, 2005. Oil and enamel on canvas, 108" x 72" © Kehinde Wiley
8: After Sir Joshua Reynolds' "Portrait of Samuel Johnson", 2009, Archival inkjet print on Hahnemühle fine art paper, 30" x 24.5" and Kern Alexander Study I, 2011. Oil on paper, 53" x 40" © Kehinde Wiley
9: Terence Nance III, 2011. Oil on canvas, 28" x 21.5" and After Sir Anthony Van Dyck's "La Roi A La Chasse", 2009. Archival inkjet print on Hahnemühle fine art paper, 30" x 24.5" © Kehinde Wiley
10: Christian Martyr Tarcisius, 2008. Oil on canvas, 83.9" x 180" © Kehinde Wiley