As an artist, Kehinde Wiley is both equally concerned with art history – those grand, majestic portraits by the likes of Gainsborough and Titian – as he is with representation, swapping English kings and queens for swaggering Harlem gents in their finest hip-hop frippery. This juxtaposition of the past and present has made Wiley an art star: he’s included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s public collection, and counts Spike Lee and Elton John as just a couple of his private collectors.
Despite his globe-trotting success, Wiley switched up his art game in 2012 and painted for the first time a series of portraits featuring young vibrant women of colour. This time around, he involved noted fashion designed Riccardo Tisci – Givenchy’s head director and a good friend of Kimye – who designed custom haute couture gowns for the model’s portrait sittings. “Women have always been relegated to this sort of beauty game, where it’s all about the male gaze, and about being positioned to be objects to be consumed,” says Wiley. “I guess I asked myself, ‘what happens when you start to play with those notions of power?’”
The project was documented in a film, “An Economy of Grace,” which just has its world premiere at the Reel Artists Film Festival. Recently in town for its gala screening, Wiley spoke to assistant art curator Rea McNamara about why it took him so long to paint women, the realities of the painting process, and the pitfalls of an MFA. (Unfortunately not included: details of his private tour of Drake One Fifty's current annual "White Pop" installation. We heard he was particularly taken by the Douglas Coupland work in the recessed wall.)
Rea McNamara: One of my favourite sequences in the documentary is seeing the behind-the-scenes primping involved in turning these regular women into these mythic, glamorous portraiture figures. The hair and make-up artist you worked with, Dee Trannybear, works frequently with drag artists, and it made me think about this gay tradition – in particular, the idolatry of this mythic female form – and the power dynamics of that worship.
Kehinde Wiley: Yeah, that’s right. To go back to "Paris Is Burning" and drag and the notion of the performance of gender, in terms of really looking at the trappings of gender, and the history of Western painting. All of that is in there. But it was also about turning the volume up on that question of the performance and the artifice of it. Just to make the hair impossibly large, to make the make-up hyper-present. Sure, it’s about echoing those great paintings throughout time, but it’s also about making this other third object. It’s not like these women walk through the world looking like this, nor do they ever really don it that way historically, so this about making its own path. One that is kind of playful, but also dead serious.
RM: Why did it take you so long to paint women?
KW: As a gay black man, so much of what I do paint, is, in many ways, a type of self-portraiture. I never paint myself, but I do think there is a way of looking at the world, or a way of being in the world. A way of looking at people who come from ghettos and underserved communities, and I look at that with a type of empathy. I don’t think I would be making this type of work if I didn’t grow up in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s. There’s definitely me in there. I continue to want to fully exhaust that complication and really get down well what it is about the black male thing that I see in popular culture, and this other black male thing that I walk through the world in, and that sort of dissonance between those two.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make quite the same type of statement involving women. How could I? At its best, what I try to do with whether it be women or people from other traditions or cultures or nations is sort of put myself in a place of discomfort, or destabilizing place.
RM: In the documentary, we get to see a whole team of assistants at work in your Beijing studio. What were your thoughts on seeing the film portray this aspect of your process?
KW: I think it’s important. It’s one of those things that so many people don’t like to talk about. Like, all my friends are pretty big-deal artists who all have studio assistants, but nobody wants to talk about it. While it has been part of the artistic tradition since Rubens and Titian and so on, the public has a much more romantic view of the artistic process. And so when you have these much more epic or herculean-scaled projects where you would require multiple studio assistants, or, when you have these larger international projects that require staff that travels around the world with you … I think the work is more than just a painting on the wall. This is a sociological act: it’s an experience, it involves lives and narratives, it involves different nations, different production techniques.
RM: You earned your MFA at Yale University’s School of Art. Recently, there’s been talk about whether MFAs really prepare young artists with earning power. There’s so much focus on honing one’s studio practice, but not so much attention given towards how one’s practice is viable on the market. What’s your take on this?
KW: MFA programs just don’t teach artists how to be artists in the world. And so much of that has to do with how do you deal with galleries, how do you deal with contracts, how do you structure your staff, and so on. These are basically business-running things. It was a steep learning curve, especially if you are an artist with a level of ambition that involves all of these major organizational strategy. But I do think that the schools could perhaps benefit from having perhaps a series of classes where they bring in artists to talk about what was their first five years like in New York, and how did they survive. How do you figure out day jobs, how do you create some sort viable life for yourself to support this art habit?
RM: Any advice for your younger self?
KW: Do exactly what you did. Hang in there.