Kehinde Wiley Q&A: On Race, Representation and Reality

Canadian Art
Feb 19, 2014 8:46PM

If portrait painting has a long tradition of idealizing the rich and powerful—from popes to kings to war heroes and beyond—then American artist Kehinde Wiley might best be known for his ability to both subvert and pay tribute to that tradition. In the early 2000s, the young Yale MFA grad gained attention with large paintings that cast African American men, usually dressed in their street clothes, in the poses and ornate settings of heroic European portraiture. These works raised questions about beauty, gender, sexuality and race, among other issues. In more recent years—as documented in the film Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Gracewhich is having its world premiere in Toronto this week as part of Canadian Art’s Reel Artists Film Festival—Wiley has turned to portrait projects involving women, as well as individuals from many different parts of the world. In this interview, Wiley talks about the childhood experiences behind his work, his desire to emulate Memling and Ingres, and his continuing anxieties as a creator.

Leah Sandals: Several mass-media profiles about you note that you grew up in South Central Los Angeles and that you were raised by a single parent. When you started out painting portraits of people you saw on the street, you were probably the same socioeconomic class as your subjects. Now, you’re likely much more wealthy than most of the people you paint, especially those you meet on the streets of New York and other cities. How has that changed, if at all, the dynamic between you and your sitters, or your own relationship with you what you do?

Kehinde Wiley: It’s a good question. I remember when I had to struggle to buy paint, and when I had to allow the size of things I made to be determined by what I could afford. It sucks. But it also, I think, is very strong reality for most artists.

And having grown up in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s, I was no stranger to struggle. My mother was a single parent with six kids on public assistance. She was working on her master’s degree at UCLA, but at the same time she was trying her best to feed us all and keep us clothed.

The transformation that has happened in terms of my career and my success as an artist is something that’s happened sequentially. Yet I can see definitely see a difference between then and now.

So much of what I did in my early days was to spend almost everything on investing back into my work. Then, all of a sudden, I was able to get the most luxurious paints and the finest linens and really investigate materials. There’s something really amazing about having access to all of the techniques and materials of bygone eras, to be able to paint on the same substrates that Rubens and Tiepolo were using.

But then we get to the other side of your question, which has to do with the interaction between me and my subjects.

I think that there’s two different types of subjects who I interact with, by and large, in New York. There are those people who are sort of versed and familiar with art—many people will actually know what my project is, and will be like “Oh, wow, this is cool.” And then there will be others who are just taken aback by the whole thing. It’s all really alien to them.

I don’t know the extent to which the second set of sitters’ socioeconomic status plays into any kind of divide there, because I come from that place. There’s a type of familiarity there.

And I don’t think that, without my background, I’d even be making this type of work. I mean, I think there’s a certain type of sensitivity to this subject matter that is uniquely my own. It comes from having an interest in the history of art and an interest in portraiture. But it also comes from an interest in looking at some of those questions around gender and performance of sexuality, and some of the bizarre notions of what it means to be a young black man or woman in American society.

What’s also been a great gift of having a successful career as an artist is the ability to translate that into a much larger global perspective on what’s possible as a painter. I recently came back from the state of Israel where I was doing work in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Before that, I was in Sri Lanka and India, and parts of Brazil. This is an opportunity for me to take myself out of comfort zones and to really ask the question anew each time. Oftentimes, this also means having to come up with radically new solutions and deal with fear and anxiety and trepidation.

LS: The film premiering this week documents your first portrait project featuring women, which debuted at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York in May 2012. In this project, titled An Economy of Grace, you took quite a different approach than you had in the past. Instead of painting sitters in their street clothes, you chose to transform the their appearance with couture gowns, heavy makeup and wigs. Since that 2012 show, I notice you’ve returned to the practice of mainly painting sitters—whether men or women—in their chosen attire, or in the way they most often choose to present themselves to the rest of the world. I was wondering if you could talk about why you used the couture approach in your first project with women and why you have, since then, returned to the practice of portraying subjects in the clothes of their choosing.

KW: It’s a good point to bring up. So much of the portraiture you see in the 17th and 18th centuries, portraiture that I was borrowing from, had a lot to do with the clothing of those sitters being specialty objects custom-made for the occasion. The women who are in those historical paintings had been practicing this role their entire lives; they were coming from wealth and status and prestige, and these paintings functioned, almost, as the final word on that. The paintings were getting it down for all eternity.

So there’s a couple things that I wanted to concentrate on in my first project with women. One was both an embrace and a critique of that sort of hyper-beauty that exists in the historical work, as well as the insistence upon women’s value being located in this place of beauty. If you look at the history of women in paintings, oftentimes you’ll see that the ones painted by men generally position women as objects to be consumed. So beauty becomes a sort of heightening agent in the service of that project.

As a result, I wanted to turn the volume up in an almost disturbing way with this first project. I wanted the hair to be impossibly large and theatrical. I wanted, at times, for the model in the painting to refuse to be seen, to turn her back, too, at times. I wanted moments of ridiculousness, like the Holofernes painting with the decapitation.

There’s a type of tongue in cheek embrace of art history, but I think there’s also a very sincere desire to make respectful, beautiful images. And it’s an interesting tightrope to walk.

Working with couture and art-historical traditions was also an opportunity to bring up the art object as high-priced luxury good for wealthy consumers. It’s a sort of the elephant in the room that very few people talk about in relationship to their art.

But what is it like, as an artist, to make a work of art and then later to see it in a museum or in someone’s home where it’s being held with white gloves and being insured, and it’s no longer that object that came from a place of discovery and from searching, but it’s now in the world as a commodity?

Also, how do we come to terms with the fact that, in my work, these paintings are often of young African American men and women coming from underserved communities, people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to attain the trappings of wealth to consume these works in the same way?

There’s a conundrum there that can’t be resolved. Their presence is necessary to even begin having a conversation around race and gender and art history and status and the anxiety of class. But it’s also something that hearkens back to some of the sort of impossibly cruel realities that exist in America and throughout the world.

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Canadian Art