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 Grace, which 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.
LS: 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?
KW: 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.
LS: And so there is a complicated set of circumstances around this work.
KW: Which is, for me, what drives it. I don’t want discrete, easy answers, you know? I thrive in complexity and juggling multiple impulses at once. And I think that’s okay. I think that art is one of those few spaces where we can ask unresolvable questions.
LS: Another question some people might find unresolvable is how much support a single artist might require to create their work. In this film, we get to see your studio setup in New York and Beijing, and we see just how many assistants are needed to help produce your paintings for An Economy of Grace. What do you say to people who may be surprised, or disappointed, by the fact that an artist may not necessarily make all of their works?
KW: Well, in my social life, I’m surrounded by artists. And every working artist I know works with studio assistants. It is a reality that exists, but perhaps the art-viewing public is not as familiar with it.
In this film, I thought it was important to undergird all of the process and to really get a sense of how dynamic a project is that involves not only multiple sites—whether those be my studio in West Africa or studio in Beijing or studio in New York—but also the teams that it takes to travel internationally. Or to make these films and to shoot this footage. It really is a large-scale undertaking.
In working this way, I’ve created a studio practice much like that of Tiepolo or Rubens or any of the great artists that we know of who had larger studio practices that included assistants.
I think it’s always important to give full context, and I think the more you talk about it, the more you put it out there, it allows the viewers to see the work as it exists in the world. And again, to go back to this question of complexity, it allows you to see it as an object in the world that has an interesting backstory—a backstory that’s more complex than perhaps the romantic notion of the artist working alone.
LS: Though the 2012 paintings in this film are quite large, I notice on your website that you turned, in 2013, to painting smaller, Memling-style portraits. Why this decision to go smaller scale, when, we as we’ve discussed, you now have the means to go really big?
KW: Well, scale matters. And in much of my work, I have been using mass scale as a critique of a lot of history and war painting that you see in institutions like the Louvre. Of all of that chest-beating that goes all through the art history. Even in the 1950s, major abstraction was pushed by scale and bravado.
That narrative of domination and scale undergirds everything. It has to do with nation-building. It has do with ego. It has to do with art being at the service of convincing the public about the power and status of the individual.
But there is something to be said about the power of smallness. As an artist who is in love with the material practice of painting, I can’t help but be amazed every time I look at Hans Memling’s small panel portraits, or to be really taken in by an Ingres drawings—the simplicity of the small mark made well.
When I began this [smaller-scale] project, it was also a challenge to myself to be able to hone my skills. I was painting in my lap with a small, single-hair brushes! It was really fun to mix it up and to see to see what I’m capable of as a painter.
LS: As you mentioned earlier, you have travelled to many places to find subjects and paint them. Usually this is done under the auspices of your project The World Stage. What are the pros and cons are of applying the same portraiture technique to people in vastly different locations and situations?
KW: The pros are that the world is chaotic and unknowable and irreducible—and that, by walking into different scenarios and utilizing the same rubric or deploying the same techniques to look at different societies, what you then reveal is not the rubric, but rather the contours of a society or the contours of an artist’s engagement with a new set of circumstances or decisions.
The World Stage is not the last word on where the evolution of culture is globally. The World Stage, in fact, is much more of a personal and poetic attempt to come to terms with what my challenges are as an artist, what my anxieties are as a creator, and what my curiosities are also as a thinker. And to that extent, it can be seen as a type of self-portraiture.
Insomuch as we think about The World Stage as a project that looks out, I think ultimately what it does, much more, is to point to how I see the people around me. Also, as an American, how do I respond to the world? Why do I choose certain places? Where do I choose to go? It’s that much more complex relationship with the self and the society that I think I’m trying address.
LS: On that note, what’s next for you?
KW: I’m eager to begin working in Haiti, specifically on the Miss Universe pageants that exist both on a national level and in small villages. Some of the youngest and most hopeful young women there compete to become Miss Haiti, with the goal of going on to the Miss Universe competition and representing the nation.
What this project does is it points to Haiti in a way that looks outside of the standard disaster viewpoint. But it also starts to look at the beauty industry much in the same way that I was looking at the history of women in painting—both in a type of pageant celebration and also, like, let’s take a cold look at this thing and see what’s there.
This interview has been edited and condensed. The documentary Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace has its world premiere at the opening night gala of the Reel Artists Film Festival on February 19 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The film will also have an encore presentation, along with a live talk by Wiley, on February 21 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information, please visit canadianart.ca/raff.