Sir Brooke Bootheby, 2013; oil on canvas
As a longtime fan of Brooklyn-based artist Kehinde Wiley, this week was an exciting one; a mini-immersion into the his art and process. Those who might be unfamiliar with his name may still have seen his stunning paintings before—they are visually arresting and instantly recognizable.
Wiley paints highly realistic portraits using the idealized manner and poses featured in classical European portraiture. However, unlike the historical portraits of regally-dressed, carefully posed and nearly-always white subjects one might find in any international museum, Wiley’s sitters are his own contemporaries: young men of colour, outfitted in their own street clothing. By showing his subjects in the same regal stances, situated within opulent and brightly patterned backgrounds, Wiley creates thoroughly modern images that challenge and upend viewers’ engrained notions of power and perception.
Charles I and Henrietta Maria, 2006, oil on canvas. From Wiley’s series Scenic, inspired by German Renaissance painter Hans Holbein the Younger. All images courtesy of the artist
Christian Martyr Tarcisius, 2008, oil on canvas
Kehinde has taken his unique perspective worldwide, traveling to such disparate locations as Brazil, Jamaica, France, and Lagos & Dakar to paint international sitters for his World Stage series; oftentimes, he incorporates contemporary and historical events from each locale into these works’ composition and titles.
Learn From Comrade Wang Guofu!, 2007, oil and enamel on canvas. From the China: The World Stage series
Leviathan Zodiac, 2011, oil and gold enamel on canvas. From the Israel: The World Stage series
This past Monday, I attended a screening of the exceptional documentary Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace at LA’s Soho House, followed by a Q&A with the artist and filmmakers. The movie made its debut (and was the festival opener) at this past winter’s Reel Artists Film Festival in Toronto; unfortunately I was out of town and missed it. How thrilling, then, to have the opportunity to see it here in LA and get to hear directly from Kehinde, as well as producer Jessica Chermayeff and cinematographer William Pena.
The film focuses on one of Wiley’s latest series, An Economy of Grace, where, for the first time, he portrayed a series of women. First, he hand-selected models from the streets of Harlem and Brooklyn (not without being rebuffed on several occasions). Then Wiley he traveled to Paris, visiting the Louvre to draw inspiration from specific portraits and poses which he would replicate in his own works. On the same trip, Wiley met with Riccardo Tisci, Creative Director for Givenchy, whom he tapped to create ethereal custom gowns especially for the sitters to wear in their portraits.
Following the project from inception to its opening at New York’s Sean Kelly gallery, the film offers fascinating insight into Wiley’s artistic process, as well as the personal and often touching perspectives of his models; these women have real-world lives, jobs and concerns, and seeing them step into their roles as unexpected high-art muses is engrossing, and often moving.
Five days after the film screening, I attended the opening of Wiley’s newest series, The World Stage: Haiti at Culver City’s Roberts & Tilton gallery. As expected, the works were big, beautiful and the result of a thoughtful immersion into their setting, as the video below illustrates.
Above: La Source. Below: The Sisters Zenaide and Charlotte Bonaparte. Both 2014, oil on linen. From The World Stage: Haiti series
Despite all his successes, Wiley maintains a modesty with what he has achieved, while acknowledging his unique stamp on the history of art—he is breathing new life into portraiture, raising the profile of people of colour. There is an undeniable soul in each of these portraits, a distinct humanity rendered in paint. Perhaps this insight comes from an uncanny ability to connect and identify with each of his sitters. As Wiley himself noted in his talk at Soho House, “I paint other people, but all of this is painting myself.”