Los Angeles native and New York based visual artist, Kehinde Wiley has firmly situated himself within art history’s portrait painting tradition. As a contemporary descendent of a long line of portraitists, including Reynolds, Gainsborough, Titian, Ingres, among others, Wiley, engages the signs and visual rhetoric of the heroic, powerful, majestic and the sublime in his representation of urban, black and brown men found throughout the world.
What Typically Inspires his Painting?
Classical European paintings of noblemen, royalty and aristocrats. His goal was to be able to paint illusionistically and master the technical aspects, but then to be able to fertilize that with great ideas. He was trained to paint the body by copying the Old Master paintings, so in some weird way this is a return to how he earned his chops, spending a lot of time at museums and staring at white flesh. If you look at his paintings, there’s something about lips, eyes, and mucous membranes. Is it only about that? No. It asks, “What are these guys doing?’ They’re assuming the poses of colonial masters, the former bosses of the Old World.
“Whenever I do photo shoots for paintings, I pull out a stack of books, whether it be something from the High Renaissance or the late French Rococo or the 19th century, it’s all thrown together in one big jumble. I take the figure out of its original environment and place it in something completely made up. Most of the backgrounds I end up using are sheer decorative devices. Things that come from things like wallpaper or the architectural façade ornamentation of a building, and in a way it robs the painting of any sense of place or location, and it’s located strictly in an area of the decorative. For the backgrounds in the World Stage Series, I look for traditional decorative objects, textiles, or devotional objects of that culture to draw upon.”
Why the shift to painting women in your An Economy of Grace series?
The reason why I am painting women now is in order to come to terms with depictions of gender and the way it is featured art historically a means to broaden the conversation. Any consideration of male power in painting naturally includes the presence of women within that dialogue. “An Economy of Grace” is an investigation of the presence of women in painting, but in a broader sense, it is a investigation of the negotiation of power in image-making. For this body of work I looked to 18th and 19th-century society portraits for inspiration. At that time it was common practice for nobility to commission unique clothing for portraiture. By working with a major fashion house on this project (Givenchy), we’re revamping that tradition for the 21st century. I’ve always been a big fan of Givenchy and Riccardo Tisci’s work, so it was a wonderful opportunity to work with him.