By Heather Corcoran
Kehinde Wiley’s paintings start with the city. The artist finds and photographs young black men he encounters on the streets of Harlem and Brooklyn then paints them in a heroic style formerly reserved for saints and kings. He’s getting a lot of attention for his reinterpretations of what he calls the “big boys of Western Europe,” but as the rising art star told us, things aren’t always as they seem.
What are you working on right now?
KW: For the last six months really, I’ve been setting up the logistics to have my studio travel worldwide: from West Africa and South Africa then to India. From there to Turkey and to Istanbul, to Brazil and to Poland, the Czech Republic. The first platform was in China. I set up a studio in Beijing and in that studio I was creating works that were based on models from Brooklyn but poses that were coming from Chinese social realism from the 1950s and ‘60s, during the Mao years. It’s kind of interesting to see how people respond to me, personally, as a young black man, being in a bar in the middle of Beijing.
Now that you’re traveling so much, how does New York influence you?
KW: New York, as a metaphor, has always been the hub of black America. You think about Harlem and how that was mythologized to people worldwide as the birthplace of so much of the entertainment that America then provided and now does. Certainly, all of my models are coming from New York, and so fashion-wise it’s a very specific type of black urban environment that’s being mined for this. In a way, New York functions as this type of cultural capital that the world then chews up and makes specific, but given its own needs.
Why is it important to reference art history in your work?
KW: Contemporary art has taken so many material forms, but painting is one of those practices that, by its very nature, is so removed, so specific to history. Figurative painting in particular, you have such a direct tie-in to the artists that preceded you. How do you make an utterance without thinking about the fact that portraiture was mastered during the 17th century and that there were these amazing ways of positing the human body and talking about power and form? The question for me is: How can you make painting matter in the 21st century when our culture is so televisualized and so Web-driven?
You’re talking about these big themes, but at the same time showcasing unknown people that you encounter on the street.
KW: Well, I think celebrity is kind of boring. It’s fabulous when they buy my paintings and all of this, and you go to the parties. When it comes to making a piece of work that resonates with someone, there’s something really great about creating something that’s monumental and epic and completely predicated on a moment of chance. This guy was minding his own business, walking down the street, and here I come with my crew and say, “Hi, you’ve got the look. Let’s work together.” There’s a power play that’s going on.
And the models then choose the poses?
KW: In that sense I think that you’re getting away from the notion of the artist of the creator of the master narrative. I hate some of the stereotypes surrounding the artist as being this guy who sits in the cave working on his magnum opus. I think it’s really fun when you say, “What do you think?” to the models and they end up choosing the paintings that will become my painting.
Are there any new things you’re trying out?
KW: In the beginning they were all models from … let’s say when I started up in Harlem, from 125th Street. Now I’ve decided to play with that notion of authenticity and to plant fake models, go to modeling agencies and ask for a certain type. Then we’ll have costume designers come in and have them look at my old paintings and design a look and a feel for the next model. So there’s this completely fabricated presence. And you never know which painting is the authentic version and which one’s the fabrication.