KEHINDE WILEY: FAUX REAL
Interview By Christine Y. Kim
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.
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.
CYK: Where did you go to high school?
KW: Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, a small specialized school à la Fame. My mentor was an excellent painter, but he had a very conservative view on art.
CYK: What was his view?
KW: Everything for him was figurative realism.
CYK: What was his approach to representation of the body?
KW: There was a lot of fetishization, and a kind of magical naturalism. He was a white man painting black subjects. Ironically, it’s from him that I learned how to mix colors and manipulate paint for black skin and bodies. It was a very bizarre thing. And so that was in a way part of my training. I see now how I critique and embrace the same traditions, like sibling histories. I like to think of
history as a rhetorical device.
CYK: You have a curiously motley crew of influences and contemporaries.
KW: Oh yeah. From my high school art teacher to Bettye Saar, Kerry James Marshall, Vanessa Beecroft, Glenn Ligon, Su-en Wong, Lisa Yuskavage, John Currin, Gerhard Richter. I love how Yuskavage and Currin dip into period portraiture and add grapefruit breasts, bug-eyes, ridiculous hourglass-figures and provocative gazes to Piero Della Francesca hair, angelic skin, prepubescent girls in their underpants … Currin especially with his combinations and contradictions. I think Michael Kimmelman once noted in a review the combination of Cranach, Calvin Klein ads, and Vargas pinups.
KW: Yes, his use of period style as a tool. His figure in space comes from a language of painting derived from public work with political content. I am interested in beauty as a tool of and for revolution, as in the case of the Mexican muralists, especially Rivera.
CYK: Are you interested in moralism?
KW: Yes, but it’s tricky. I am interested in Volosinov, the Russian Marxist from the early 1900s who discussed language as social. These types of ideas allow for the production of meaning to be related to unequal power relationships in social life. Thus you have a sense of class struggle at the level of sign. I began to approach a moral center itself at the level of sign. This made the imperative of morality open to critique. There’s always room for subversive intent, but this I realized more recently. After San Francisco I went to Yale University for my MFA. One of the things that I always strive to do in my work is to recognize the disconnect between the object of blackness and myself. There I was subjected to people telling me that my paintings were too obvious. My references to blackness were too direct, and they wanted something a little more personal. The crisis for me was how to create a personal statement, what is a personal statement about who anyone is, and is art ever capable of acting as a vehicle for that sort of endeavor. I came up with a few answers, and I still haven’t answered a lot of them.
CYK: At Yale, how did you respond to Harold Bloom’s discussion of history as a sort of stage for art practice and perhaps the artist’s relation to heroes? Whose history would that become?
KW: It felt limiting because I wanted to critique Euro-centricism in art history. Many of my heroes take on class and misogyny in their work but rarely race and cultural allegiance. John Currin, for example, uses technique almost as a signifier of the power of Western easel painting … as a vehicle of representation. One of the things I admire about his work is the way in which he was capable of at once using the language of painting as a rhetorical strategy and inserting his own, what you might call, perversions, into the picture. The two languages coexist and what you end up with is this third object. But in relation to Bloom, yes, Currin is allowed to do that because it is Currin’s history. I never wanted to be white but that indisputable access to the history of Western painting becomes sickly desirable.
CYK: I find that you have developed a methodology, perhaps of combinations and contradictions, of style and iconography, that recognizes yet transcends those limitations.
KW: With the work that I’m doing now, I am interested in history as it relates to “bling bling.” (laughs) In places like Harlem, people ornament their bodies, love Gucci and Versace, baggy jeans, bubble jackets, hoodies … I’m interested in architectural ornament, certain types of French Rococo facade ornaments, for instance, that end up as faux décor in shopping malls or Michael Graves’ faux neoclassicism pomo, for that matter.
CYK: When one translates that to painting, the reading changes.
KW: In my own work, history is questioned. Would this ornament belong to something like, say, a Versace jacket or is it really Baroque? So the question of appropriation comes into play. Period style is treated as something kitsch as opposed to something immediate and tangible. It’s held at an arm’s length. History becomes a plaything. I create something akin to the diorama in that the figure is situated in a contrived, constructed space, but I’m also borrowing from images from, say, the ascension Christ and placing black bodies there.
The whole purpose of this project is to manufacture a sense of eminent visibility, to brutalize the language of imminent visibility, and to draw upon its strength as a historical marker, as referent to something we all recognize intrinsically, much like when I was a youngster looking at those early English portrait paintings. I want to aestheticize masculine beauty and to be complicit within that language of oppressive power while at once critiquing it. The work I think attempts to navigate those two fields without answering any questions that might be assumed of me, I’m not particularly interested in providing answers to questions of morality, I’m more interested in creating situations …
I draw inspiration from artists who aren’t necessarily painters. I remember looking at the Gursky show at the Museum of Modern Art and thinking about heroic scale, about the way that John Currin fetishizes technique as something that is specifically heroic. But also there is a certain amount of heroic intent in the work of Kerry James Marshall, whose concerns include canonical insertion. I remember even as a child looking at one of his paintings in Los Angeles, which the painting in Black Romantic, Conspicuous Fraud#1: Eminence, is sort of a send up to, called Destyle. In that painting you have a number of black men in a barber shop and they are huge. It’s the scale of history painting, and it’s in this space dominating this world just as much as a large Motherwell would. I construct the heroic also as a tool for talking about something that is not heroic. I use the heroic as a means of talking about the pathetic. I’m very much interested in the ways in which structures are fragile in a sense, and a lot of my work concentrates on the fault lines of structures, much in the same sense that Curt Kauper created those nude self-portraits. Here this white male body presented to the world as something that may be read as powerful is actually something rather comical and seemingly pathetic. And there is certain amount of humor in that, I think that humor is implicit in the work that Kurt made. I definitely use humor in my own work as a means of obviating the fluidity of languages.
CYK: Heroicism, irony, romance …
KW: The two earlier paintings in Black Romantic go back to Nerdrum … but the same amount of romance that Nerdrum brought to his work is akin to someone like Caspar David Freidrich, whose work I was looking at as well. In both of these cases the figure in the landscape is at once vulnerable and someone who is capable of mastering the world as well, which of course gets back to Emerson, man and nature and the ways in which one sees his own agency, the great wilderness that lies ahead and a romantic notion of male agency. So in the show [Black Romantic] you’ve got examples of two very different types of paintings from two very different points in my practice. While you have something that is intentionally very romantic in its positing of the black male in the land, one painting even the black male consumed or subsumed by the land and in the later paintings very nature of that language turns in on itself. And it’s an interesting opportunity to have both of those vernaculars posited, each commenting on the other … about the practice of painting.
CYK: The vitality of painting the practice of painting?
KW: And I think the other has to do with the usefulness of painting …
CYK: What is the function of painting today?
KW: It’s a very hard thing to articulate. Much of African-American figurative painting has a specific relationship with positivism. I don’t think that positivism is always interesting; and personally, if I can make moves on that question of positivism itself, then I’m doing something worthwhile. However, the kind of positivism that exists in African-American figurative painting is about self-representation and regardless of where the language comes from, it’s also about taking canons and genres and claiming and appropriating them to a positive end. So it’s important and very real, and I respect that immensely. It might be criticized as unoriginal or low art, but then Sean Landers copying a Picasso is somehow an ironic observation of history, that manages to maintain a very provocative, personal, poetic sensibility. Sure I’m interested in irony, but I’m also interested in sincerity and the question is how I can I tie the two together.
CYK: When I look at your work I see you tying together not just two but a multitude of seemingly disparate but actually parallel or complementary practices, languages, and notions.
KW: Well, there is a multiplicity of any number of periods, artists, ideas, any number of political and moral allegiances in my work, and that’s the point. I think it’s always important not to shut the work down with any sense of high-art audience versus black-people-in-the-street audience. I’m not interested in having to choose between being real and being heady. I’m trying to be true to an essence of urgency, to replicate sensations and ideas visually, to bring to the table not only my own desires but things that point the larger evolution of culture, art, and art history.
This interview was published in its full version in Black Romantic: The Figurative Impulse in African-American Art on the occasion of the exhibition of the same title, organized by Thelma Golden, at The Studio Museum in Harlem.
Portrait of Kehinde Wiley in his studio, New York photo: Jan-Willem Dikkers
All images courtesy: Deitch Projects