Exclusive: Classics Meet Hip-Hop in Kehinde Wiley
15 years into the new millennium, you would be hard-pressed to find any catalogue or even conversation about the era’s contemporary art without the mention of Kehinde Wiley. His style of portraiture has become instantly recognizable, perhaps even iconic, thanks in large part to its growing presence in the world of pop culture as a whole, most recently recognizable to viewers of the TV hit Empire, in which his work featured prominently.
Wiley’s work is unparalleled in the art world; fusing the portrait style, composition, and accentuations of classic paintings of the 18th century with subjects literally picked off the street in contemporary urban America in a process he’s dubbed ‘street casting’, all set against a lushly colored and patterned Rococo background. This is quite evident in works like Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, which is a direct homage to the famous painting by Jacques-Louis David, only reworking the French Emperor as a man in camo pants and Timberland boots while losing none of the majesty and might so carefully wrought in the original.
Though several of his works are already on permanent display, the Brooklyn Museum has just opened the very first exhibition that examines Wiley’s entire 14 year career. Titled A New Republic, the show features over 60 of the artist’s works and showcases his utterly unique and captivating style. Milk Made spoke to Kehinde ahead of the exhibition opening to discuss his art, the art of the Old Masters, and the inherent role that gender and sexuality play in both.
When did you first express interest in painting?
You know when you grow up in South Central Los Angeles, you want to find something to occupy your time, and I happily found painting. I stuck with it for a number of reasons. I got a real pleasure of getting great feedback from, and it taught me how to do well in other areas of my life. And it was fun.
It seems that your historical references are moving further and further back in time, do you consciously decide to go back chronologically when looking for inspiration?
Well there’s no grand design or anything, I think it’s more organic. I’m essentially going to my bookshelf when I go into these shoots. I think I need to make moves that aren’t the obvious ones, it really just comes down to whether something works well in the studio. I ask my models to go through poses and art history with me, because you never really know what’s going to happen once we start taking portraits. You can look at the painting we’re emulating on the wall and not know the story but if you do it really activates it for you.
What do you find advantageous about grounding your paintings in real-life subjects through street casting?
When I moved to Harlem I just started painting people I saw in the neighborhood. It was very different at that time, it was packed wit this energy that was so pedestrian compared to LA. New York has a vitality which you can try to peg your portrait making on, but in the end its happening right outside your doorstep. You allow for chance to dictate the proceedings of your work, which I think is marvelous.
Have you found any artists to be particularly influential for you?
I would say that Titian in particular is a real influence. My love began when I went to Venice for one of the biennales and I was looking at these Titian sculptures, and they were just extraordinary, not only in material but the sheer scale of it as well. The use of architecture and space was of course something used in the service of the church, but I loved this kind of religious majesty and it all snapped together for me. I love Caravaggio’s work as well, the light and the hypersexualized homoeroticism coming together in these very graceful religious paintings. To a modern eye, it’s an unseemly sensual painting that would try and satisfy the goals of the church, and looking back now its performance all of the trappings of power are so obvious. So looking over at the past like that, it’s a lot of dead artists that appeal to me, but even today I have the great opportunity for friends like Mickalene Thomas.
Your transition to female subjects was well documented, but why do you think you focused on the male form for so long before trying women?
Well I think the male stuff in a deeper sense are a response to a very queer aesthetic. It’s very homoerotically charged, a lot of the impulse you would see in Caravaggio and Michelangelo. Masculinity, particularly black masculinity, is celebrated seemingly everywhere in America but nowhere in real life. I also see my responsibility to be as brutally honest with myself as my viewers. There is a kind of responsibility to create and craft images of what is, but also the will to create a kind of psychological sexual fantasy space that so much of my earlier work was about. As my work evolved, it started to take on a much broader call to arms which black masculinity was just a part of. No longer is it about America, and the way it has benefitted from putting hip-hop culture at the leading edge, but specifically it’s about an untethered narrative, something that’s both scary and wonderful.
We’re in the midst of a pivotal era for Civil Rights, how do you think that it has shaped the current state of African-American culture?
I think that the inner connected nature of the web, which has brought people together in some obvious ways but also isolated stories and traditions in obvious ways as well, is kind of profound. The more I travel for my work and the more I see of this world, there’s this new kind of global privileged elite. The same schools, the same airports, no matter where you are, same type of magazines, same websites, there is a global sameness that is an increasingly persistent part of a global middle class. And what doesn’t get told often is this divide between those who are web enabled and those that are not. Tweeting about when the next protest will be, these are not the people I’m concerned with. What is more important as a painter, and a traveler, than to turn my attention towards those areas where we aren’t able to connect? Small villages in the Congo and the conversation about the future of Africa and all the optimism is a side conversation that people don’t necessarily have access to. With my position comes responsibility, the contours around the conversations about modernity.
Your paintings have become a constant presence when examining important work of the 21st century, what do you think has made your work resonate so deeply?
I think part of the appeal is that you can’t deny there are very few artists or institutions that will allow you to see young black women and men with an urban aesthetic having anything to do with the highbrow. This is one of those strange situations where the ivory tower obsessions of the art class have fallen at my doorstep. It happens to be those pictured in the past and I think the explosion of those two critical factors that allow for an inside and outside conversation; Embraced by both popular culture and embraced by the art world elite. I guess all the chest beating tableaus created something singular.
Would you rather spend a day with someone from the past or someone from the future?
I would definitely say the past. I would be curious about artists who preexisted in those territories that we now call formerly colonies. Some of those areas where history has preceded, so we can come to terms with places like Nigeria, where they had this amazing civilization, to stick down and be able to pick the mind of the young sculptors who crated some of those amazing bronzes. And just to see firsthand their world view and imperatives.
What is the most important thing you learned from studying the European masters?
What you see is not at all what you get. There’s a lot of trickery going on. Very intricate trickery. For thousands of years art has arguably has been at the leading edge of propaganda: at the service of the powerful and armed with the utility of the vocabulary. And then there are artists like myself who deconstruct this language. And the culture is constantly in a state of evolution. It shouldn’t be hard for someone like me to remain excited about it.
A New Republic is on display at the Brooklyn Museum until May 24th
Artwork courtesy of the Collection of Ana and Lenny Gravier. © Kehinde Wiley. (Photo: Jason Wyche, courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York)