Does contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley really need another article written about him? There’ve been so many, too many to keep track of. Perhaps he is the most written about artist of his time, thanks to crossover appeal into the worlds of hip hop, bourgeois art, sport, and celebrity. N.B. in each of the articles there are pitfalls, from focusing too much on the identity politics at play, or overanalyzing the sexuality, or being too fascinated with the process, or missing out on the fascinating aspects of the process altogether. It’s all there, to be sure, a merger of art world bravado, art world transcendence, art world denial. It’s a push and pull with Wiley’s work, both conceptually present, and historically entrenched. We know all that.
Reality: Kehinde, as anyone with any connection to him calls him, plays droll like a Hamptonite and fabulous like a WeHo regular. He has a razor wit and he, like much of the art world, has a good time on the regular—if you know what I’m saying. His rental up in Laurel Canyon is next to fellow contemporary artist Wangechi Mutu’s rental. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles (Jefferson Park to be exact) and seems to like it for spurts, but would rather be in a hut in the Brazilian seaside city of Salvador—who wouldn’t?—a town which, from the looks of it, is about as paradisiacal as a city can get, and to where Kehinde and his friend Rahsaan Gandy, who travels with him, are headed after L.A. Has anyone written about this stuff yet? Do people care about the artist’s life anymore? Does it feed into a certain knowledge of his work that Kehinde has close-cropped hair and a belly-laugh that honks in from nowhere? That everyone I called for ancillary quotes—from famous artists to heady critics—seems to be a friend of Kehinde’s?
Kehinde, for now, is ours, though. He’s in town to make the cover of the magazine you’re holding in your hand, and, go ahead, take a look, it’s the first self-portrait he’s ever done. So, suspend your disbelief for one moment: it’s a few days before the shoot. Kehinde rolls up with Rahsaan and his studio manager Krista Ware to Flaunt in a rented black Escalade on a sunny afternoon a week before Christmas. One of the interns in the office shirks behind his computer, as he has recently written his senior thesis on Kehinde’s work. The awkwardness of first impressions hangs in the air, but Kehinde is in good spirits and we all hit it off.
The next day Kehinde, myself, Associate Editor Mui-Hai Chu, Rahsaan, and Krista drop into a costume shop on Fairfax, where a David Lynch-ian scene unfolds. It primarily involves a stringy-haired, hunched shopkeep who keeps referring to Kehinde as “the talent,” as in, “The talent isn’t allowed to go in the back room to pick wardrobes—we’ve done a lot of these rap videos.” He hisses the last part. Finally, after much awkward deliberation, we fib that Kehinde’s actually the stylist for the shoot and thus he’s allowed to go back and select his wardrobe. As we pour out of the costume shop, negative nerves turn to laughter and we pocket the odd tale of thinly-veiled racism for later. We all smoke cigarettes.
Two days before Christmas: Kehinde, slightly hung-over, rocking shades and three-tongued limited edition Jeremy Scott kicks (“Three tongues: my lesbians know where I’m at!” he gags), changes into an elaborate 19th century dandy riding costume with a crop and a hat and everything. He orchestrates the lighting on his face with our trusty photographer team Stevie and Mada to his stringent standards, from supernatural, classic Italian portrait halo light to something slightly more direct. We play the Diddy Dirty Money record on repeat. We eat Whole Foods sandwiches. Kehinde’s twin brother, Taiwo, drops by, as do his sisters, Elodi and Ericka. He tweaks the lighting back to classic Italian halo. The image that results—the cover—is formally similar to many of the images that Kehinde has made over the course of his career. This stands to reason, because on set he’s been very particular, and I feel like I’ve caught a glimpse of one of the world’s most prominent artist’s working nature. It’s low-key, but rigorous. Perfectionist.
Kehinde started auspiciously, famously, with a 2001 residency at The Studio Museum in Harlem directly out of his MFA at Yale. The works back then were photo-real paintings of men he had selected off the streets of Brooklyn, set over elaborate floral backgrounds. Little adjustments have been made over the years; Kehinde did a recent series of photographic portraiture called “Black Light,” the images taken in front of a green screen with backgrounds added in post-production at his studio in Beijing. The subject matter changes slightly, from young black street-cast models to rap and R&B icons. It’s long had the same aesthetic feel: classic portraiture in the grand tradition of 16th century Venetian school painters such as Titian, or 18th century fresco master Giambattista Tiepolo, with African-American men substituting the original subjects. Kehinde has painted zero white people, and virtually no women.
Early in his career, Kehinde could not escape comparison to Barkley Hendricks, an artist who melded classic portraiture and stances to contemporary swagger to highlight and instill powerful features into images of black subjects. Kehinde’s work explored similar notions of coolness—the subjects wearing contemporary clothing—often New Era ball caps and loose-fitting sportswear. In 2007, though, his invocation of The World Stage series greatly diversified and defined his output. The ongoing series has occurred outside of America, starting with a series of portraits painted in Beijing that mimicked Maoist propaganda posters, except in this case it’s black men uniting the working class, or juxtaposing communism with the commerciality and capitalistic nature of young black culture. Whatever the meaning, the most important thing was that this work opened Kehinde’s vernacular to a whole range of possibilities—namely eroding the clear-cut flat-footedness his early work often displayed.
From Beijing, where he felt comfortable enough to set up a fully staffed studio, Kehinde took The World Stage to Dakar, Lagos, Brazil, India, and Sri Lanka. On the 9th of April, 2011, Kehinde will open a show at Roberts & Tilton Gallery in Los Angeles. He’ll continue the series, the setting for this round of portraits being Israel, with a third of the subjects being Ethiopian Jews—the Falasha that were exiled from Ethiopia by the Islamic and Christian ruling populations, and who now live as equal citizens of Israel. It’s the only situation in the world where refugees are considered equal citizens because of their religion. The other subjects in the exhibit are young Palistinian men and young Jewish men.
It’s after Christmas now and I rouse Kehinde from a nap on the couch in the rental he’s staying in. There’s the evidence of an epic late night French fry cook up in the kitchen—barbecue sauce and ranch dressing decorate the countertop. The home is too modern for Kehinde, too cheesy for a man that’s experienced taste through fame and fortune via the art world. It’s proof there’s something unpretentious about Kehinde—he’s comfortable anywhere, even in a relatively tacky home. It’s that dichotomy, that line he straddles between the art complex and this modern life—he seems to constantly be working within two truths. He turns on the fireplace (one of those vulgar ones with pebbles of glass the fire comes through) and sniffles. I think of Kehinde in Israel.
“I entered Israel as a provocation,” he says, tackling the question of what it means to work in such a politically divisive area. “Many of the reasons why I choose certain sites have to do with a level of curiosity, but it also has to do with their broader, global, political importance—strategically for America, and the world community at large. One of the reasons I chose Brazil and Nigeria and India and China is that these are all the points of anxiety and curiosity and production that are going on in the world, that are changing the way we see empire.”
Israel is a touchy point, and views on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is frankly something that keeps many artists away from the country. And yet, Kehinde’s temperance is such that he can never vacate the space he’s in. The politics only interest him in that he puts them in play into his work—that is to say, that they start the conversation is enough. What happens next is that we speak, candidly, about Israeli hip hop, and what it is that’s interesting him these days, including a young political rapper he met and photographed while in Israel by the name of Kalkidan.
Kehinde jumps that fence from hip hop back to art without skipping a beat. “I’ve been able to traverse both of those paths and I think at it’s best,” Kehinde says, “what I try to do in my work, is try to celebrate the aspects I like best out of each one of those features. Those features are defined by the academy and the ways in which we can look at modes of representation and allow a very active looking to be explored, and to ask questions about why we do certain things. That gets into technical ground concerning literature, psychology, sociology, and so on, but I think that’s fascinating. I think applying those lessons that we learn with regard to radical gender studies, or queer studies, or broader cultural patterns [and] psychological realities are things that can then be applied towards an art practice, or even the way you function and live and fashion one’s life. But at the same time, I think one of the annoying things about the ‘art industrial complex’ is that there has been something that we might call ‘difficulty as an aesthetic component’ that’s evolved over time, and I think part of that had to do with a type of chauvinism, a type of self-importance that allowed for people to be shut out.”
He’s spot on. Even this article risks cramming itself into the esoteric. Which is why it’s important to remember that one side of Kehinde exists, again, in the pop arena. “Pop Art was a reaction to painting that was obsessed with removing actuality from the surface,” Kehinde retorts. “But it was also a response to boring painting. There’s two different ways of looking at Abstract Expressionism: the argument for so long was, ‘How do we remove the world from painting?’ The idea is that you disappear from even the paint and the conceptual notions start to come into play, so the idea itself becomes a state of grace. That’s fine, but after a while, you want to pull back into society that gave rise to making shit to begin with.”
Kehinde clearly considers himself to be in some version of the Pop Art milieu. But, what of the classical portraiture? “I’m interested in the visceral love act of seeing a face,” he says matter-of-factly. “I think the reason why we respond to a portrait more than a still life is that people are more interesting than a basket of fruit. I think that if I were to distill my unifying principles and my work down to one essential component, it would be an act of celebration. One thing that I celebrate is people who tend to look like me. But also, modes of dress and behavior that are at once familiar and exotic. I remember being in Harlem after grad school and looking at 125th Street pedestrian society. Coming from Los Angeles, everybody’s driving, there’s no real street culture. Being on 125th on a packed, dense Saturday afternoon where’s there’s all this peacocking and intense way of communicating and establishing status and consensus and so on—it was something I thought was absolutely fascinating. So, is it possible to look at that from a purely embracing point of view or you potentially self-exotify in some ways. Are you looking at black American culture at arm’s length, and looking at it as the other, even though you’re within it at the same time?”
I ask him about celebrating people who look like him—what exactly that entails—and he gets a distant look in his eye. “I loved when I walked into LACMA as a kid and seeing Kerry James Marshall’s grand barbershop painting. But it was thrown into very sharp relief when thinking about the absence of other black images in that museum. There was something absolutely heroic and fascinating about being able to feel a certain relationship to the institution and the fact that these people happen to look like me on some level. One of the reasons I’ve chosen some of these zones [for The World Stage series] had to do with the way you fantasize, whether it be about about your own people or far-flung places, and how there’s the imagined personality and look and feel of a society, and then there’s the actuality that sometimes is jarring, as a working artist and traveling from time to time. Being in southern India, that black American hip hop culture is everywhere—to see it in sharp relief on these brown bodies in south Asia is something extraordinary, something that I wanted to get down without even fully understanding the entirety of the cultural context. I think it’s important to destabilize yourself.”
Being out of the safety zone is something Kehinde values deeply. He is curious about the world, yet understands he must look at it from a very American stance in order to understand the way his American identity echoes around the world. He street casts many of his subjects, often beautiful young males, which brings rise to a variety of complicated situations—Kehinde is gay and is perhaps looking for an attractive male sexuality that reflects his own. “I remember being in Tel Aviv and having this photo shoot with a young Palestinian family who were very curious about what the hell it was I was up to and why I was doing it,” he says. “The big difference between street casting in a place like Nigeria or Sri Lanka versus Brooklyn or Harlem is that many Americans have this moment of, ‘Well, of course you found me.’ There’s this idea of just-add-water celebrity. Whereas in other places, there is much more a sense of hopelessness that I try to get down in the painting, too. I think one of the things that surprised me about Sri Lanka was going into some of the smaller villages where Western easel painting culture is just not something people value. They were looking at all the expensive camera equipment—and all of the white people following me around assisting me—and wondering, ‘Why the hell are all of these resources being applied towards this pursuit?’ Listening to them, my understanding was that it seemed wasteful, decadent.”
How art production is seen by different castes is an oversized question, but the idea of Kehinde out in the open spaces is comforting. Everyone I asked to comment on Kehinde spoke to the growth that his work has gone through since The World Stage project came into being. “Absolutely,” says artist Peter Halley, who saw early work of Kehinde’s while Halley was a part-time professor at Yale during Kehinde’s MFA year, “his work is doing things a lot of other people aren’t able to do.” Halley also touches on Wiley’s “maniacal perfectionism,” something that was duly noted at the photo shoot.
For writer and curator Sarah Lewis, the lamentation is that, “I don’t think people appropriately appreciate how much he’s really a trickster. He has this deliberate instability. He’ll critique these same things he’s been celebrating. What he was destabilizing hadn’t been destabilized yet—people saw it only as critique and not also celebration, and he’s very clear about it being both.”
I think back to the first time I met Kehinde; I’d invited him to a dinner in Art Basel last year, a place where he seems to thrive. He’s probably one of the only artists in the world that openly admits he enjoys Art Basel Miami Beach. He has a fish fry every year. He understands the secret: you have to be prepared to have fun in any situation to survive in this world (art or otherwise). At the dinner, he sat and drank wine and laughed the night away with that laugh that comes out of nowhere. It’s the same trickster that Sarah Lewis talks about, the one that sneaks sperm into the bespoke frames his paintings are held by, who will sit and have a good time all night with a bunch of strangers and acquaintances. And yet, it’s important to end with reiterating that Kehinde’s work deals with nervy subjects like black and gay identity and that shouldn’t be underestimated. And yet, he has celebrity collectors like David LaChapelle, Elton John, Neil Patrick Harris, and Lance Armstrong. And yet, the institutions that have included his work in their public collections include the Met, the Walker, the High, LACMA, and the Rubells. And yet, he’s collaborated with everyone from Puma to Infiniti to VH1. And yet, and yet, and yet.
I think once more of something Sarah Lewis said about Kehinde’s work: “It’s the sense of inclusion and power combined that gives anyone a point of entry to his conversation.” And that’s it. It’s a conversation anyone can have. Just looking at Kehinde’s work is powerful enough. To think about it is even more powerful. I wanted to end with that quote from Ms. Lewis, an academic, but it wouldn’t have felt right. I need that balance, that duality, that unique line that Kehinde’s work walks. “For me,” writes Neil Patrick Harris in an email, “Kehinde’s work brilliantly bridges the gap between classes. Urban and socialite. Modern and classic. Reality and fantasy. His images are not only exquisitely crafted, but for me, intensely thought-provoking: Who is the subject? What is his story? Why that pose? What is its inspiration? I’m a huge fan, and a proud collector. I suspect he’ll be studied and appreciated for lifetimes...”