Kehinde Wiley
obtained his master’s degree from Yale University’s School of Art in 2001 and was immediately featured in the exhibitions Black Romantic and Ironic/Iconic at the Studio Museum in Harlem. In 2002, he received the Rema Hort Mann Foundation art grant. He recently held his first solo exhibition entitled Faux/Real, at Deitch Projects in New York and participated in the 2003 Prague Biennial. His upcoming solo show Pictures at an Exibition opens October 11 at Roberts and Tilton Gallery in Los Angeles. Wiley lives and works in New York.

Christine Kim
has worked as a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem for the past three years. She has organized exhibitions there and at various other galleries. She was also a contributing writer for The American Century and has lectured at Princeton University and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Kim is currently a visiting professor at Bard College and a recent recipient of the American Center Foundation’s Fund for Arts Research grant.

In the spring of 2001 Kehinde Wiley completed his MFA in Painting at Yale University and then moved to New York to participate in the Artist-in-Residence Program at The Studio Museum in Harlem. During his first week in Harlem, he came across a seemingly insignificant piece of litter, which would transform his oeuvre. That afternoon, en route from 126th Street and Morningside to The Studio Museum, he found a crinkled letter-size sheet of paper blowing down the sidewalk with a dirty color photograph affixed to it: a mug shot of a young black man. “CONFIDENTIAL: FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT PURPOSES ONLY” and the man’s name were inscribed on top. This trashed confidential document, containing this individual’s name, alleged criminal record, and photograph, disturbed Wiley. It labeled this identified yet depersonalized man, whose presence was absent, whose nostalgia was utterly non-stalgic, and whose skeletons forever unclosetable. Not quite sure why, Wiley picked up the document and pinned it to his studio wall, where it remained for an entire year, ultimately becoming the inspiration for his Passing/Posing series.

After years of studying European masters from Titian and Giorgione to Fragonard and Boucher, to Gainsborough and Constable, Wiley located the nexus of his artistic practice that afternoon. This found object forced him to rethink the dizzying myriad of learned notions of portraiture, both in relation to the history of Western art as well as to himself, as a “young African-American figurative painter.” It gave rise to what he calls “a sort of anti-portrait painting” with irony and sincerity. This interview with Wiley illustrates how.

 

CYK: How long have you been painting?

KW: Since I was eleven. My mother took me to art classes on the weekends. As a kid growing up in Los Angeles in the eighties, my mom took me to museums too. She is a
linguist, and art was another language to her. I loved the Huntington Library galleries. Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and John Constable were some of my favorites.

CYK: The eighteenth-century British masters and the Royal Academy … ? What was it about these works that you were so drawn to?

KW: The imagery. It was sheer spectacle, and of course beauty. When I started painting, I started looking at technical proficiency, manipulation of paint, color, and composition. The portraits were hyperreal. All the detail on the face was really well crafted, and the brushwork, the clothing, and the landscape were more fluid and playful. Since I felt somewhat removed from the imagery, personally and culturally, I had a scientific approach and aesthetic fascination with the paintings. That distance gave me a removed freedom. It wasn’t until later that I started thinking about issues of desire, objectification, and fantasy in portraiture … and of course colonialism. But I was just an adolescent, and these paintings were just powerful.

CYK: Powerful aesthetically, in all the ways that you mentioned, as monumental, grandiose, sheer spectacle, as well as being eighteenth-century masterpieces of Romanticism and English portraiture. Portraiture had a specific role then. William Hogarth in the first part of the eighteenth century created the genre of the “Moral Modern Subject.” Portraiture, just after history painting but before landscape painting was ranked very high because, according to the academic theorists, they “improved the mind and excited noble sentiments.” There was a particular value in depicting the figure in all his glory, stature, and rank. In the tradition of allegorical, mythological, biblical, and history painting, portraits were commissioned by aristocrats, to portraying a lord as a lord and a lady as a lady.

KW: Yes, at the time, to have your portrait painted by a famous British artist was an incredible social achievement. You were depicted as wealthy and powerful, accompanied by icons of status, worldly possessions, expensive accessories, extravagant costumes, etc.

CYK: In reaction to Neoclassicism and notions of emotional restraint, logic, order, technical precision, and form in painting, Romanticism allowed for fantasy. In portraiture, icons and signifiers of dignity, decorum and class took precedence over accuracy. Content, and meaning through content, allowed for the creation of new mythologies and fantasies. I have noticed that kind of navigation of language and content in your work.

KW: Conceptually, they both do the same thing. Neoclassical and Romantic painting were both about manipulating reality. I think that was the fantasy and escapism that was so fascinating to me as a child. And then being a young black kid in LA, there a was another level of removal which also served as a point of re-entry. So it went from there to later on having a mentor, an artist whose specific interest in painting was something that I wasn’t particularly interested in at all: French Rococo. Fragonard particularly, and that was high school, really, I spent a lot of time in high school looking at Fragonard in art history books.